The Washington Post

‘Son . . . . if you want to be a writer, someday you’ll be.’

Piri Thomas, the author of "Down These Mean Streets," the classic 1967 memoir of ghetto life in Spanish Harlem. (FAMILY PHOTO)

The book recounted his coming-of-age in Spanish Harlem, his descent into crime, his seven years in prison and the redemption he found in writing. It was an immediate sensation and helped inspire the generation of “Nuyorican” writers that came from the Puerto Rican community in New York.

The obituary ended with a story from Mr. Thomas’s childhood. Here’s how it went:

Some of Mr. Thomas’s earliest prose showed a knack for stirring reaction. He told the [New York] Times he had once tried to woo an English teacher with a composition that went into intricate detail about her beauty.

When the woman returned his 2 1/2-page tribute, he found an unexpected note: “Son, your punctuation is lousy; your grammar is nonexistent. But if you want to be a writer, someday you’ll be. P.S. We both love my wife.”

It was signed by his teacher’s husband.

After the obituary was posted online, I received an e-mail from Mr. Thomas’s wife, Suzie Dod Thomas. She said that Mr. Thomas loved recalling that story about his teacher. She continued:

He would finish it, though, with another sentence:

“I learned two things that day:

 One, that someone had recognized in me the ability to be a writer; and two, not to fool around with another man’s wife.”  

 The audience, . . . usually teachers, would howl in laughter, but the lesson to encourage, not discourage, their students was never lost.

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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