I can still remember the moment I knew what I was going to do for a living.
I didn’t know this would be the company I’d work for or even that I’d necessarily be in newspapers, but it was the first time I realized I could make a living with the written word.
I was taking freshman composition in my first semester at Suffolk County Community College. My professor, Paul Agostino, was blowing off a little steam after reading a particularly bad batch of papers. Pacing at the front of the classroom in the Islip Arts Building at the school’s Ammerman Campus in Selden, he told us he understood we were only taking the class because it was required.
“None of you will be professional writers,” he said, before stopping and looking up at me. “Except for you, Grant. You can be a writer if you want.”
At that point in my 19 years on Earth, I had never shown I wanted anything.
I did so poorly in high school — due mostly to a lack of effort — that when it came time for college applications, I never filled one out.
When all my friends left for their first semester in college, I accepted a full-time gig as a restaurant host and banquet server at the Ramada Inn in Riverhead (now the Hotel Indigo). When I lost that job, I was at the lowest point in my young life. My next job was short-lived; I was an usher at a community theater, where the $15 pay referenced in the help wanted ad drew me in but the paycheck — which showed it was $15 per day, not per hour — pushed me out.
Sensing I was headed in the wrong direction — or no direction at all — Tom McKnight, a retired Wading River Elementary School teacher and longtime family friend, handed me a book. It was called “Do It: Let’s Get Off Our Buts,” a self-help guide with a message so devoid of subtlety that one of the Ts was left out of the word “butts.”
Inside, Mr. McKnight wrote, “This book can help you find the career path that fits with your talents …”
Soon after, I enrolled at SCCC, where I met Paul. He was my first real-life example of a “college professor.” His hair was unkempt, his T-shirt rotation pitched on short rest and he talked as my friends and I did.
That’s not to suggest his classes were ever easy. You’d have to read your essays, short stories and poems in front of the class and fellow students would take turns criticizing you. If they didn’t rip you to shreds, sometimes Paul would.
As a defense mechanism, I’d always just try to make him laugh, like the time I dedicated a poem to Shrimp Mates, the off-brand fish sticks my mother once bought at Costco. After I exceeded the absence limit in one of his creative writing classes, Paul told me he’d make one of them go away if I brought in Shrimp Mates for the entire class. So on the last day of the semester, I showed up at school with a giant tray o’ mates and a bowl of homemade cocktail sauce. Let the transcript reflect that I received an A in that course.
Remembering what he’d said years earlier, I turned to Paul for a letter of recommendation after my first newspaper interview. I got the job.
In the 12 years since, we’ve exchanged the occasional email or shared a little Facebook banter. He recently sent me an advance copy of his new book, “Appalachian Calculations.” It’s a collection of his musings from a decade’s worth of trips to North Carolina.
A fellow Long Islander with a family home in Asheville, a city he writes about with deep admiration, the book struck a chord with me. He writes that “Asheville is a town of street pipers and harmonica players and music coaxing you into so many doors it’s hard to choose just one,” an observation that comes to life in the mind of anyone who’s ever spent a summer evening in the “Paris of the South.”
Reading each of his pieces, I was reminded not just of how talented my teacher is, but how sometimes as a writer it’s difficult to pass praise along. Sometimes your instinct as a creative person is to feel jealousy for something excellent someone else created.
Reading the book made me feel nostalgic not just about the many trips I’ve taken to visit family in North Carolina, but also for my days spent in Paul’s class and the impact he had on me. I’m not sure I’ve ever thanked him for that.
Too often young people — not just writers — never find that person who gives them the confidence to understand they’re good at something.
It’s a simple thing, really, to see an ability in someone and to let them know it. If we just took a moment every so often to share in this way, we’d all be better off for it.
Who knows? They might even pay you back in Shrimp Mates.
The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 631-354-8046.