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Former Faculty Spotlight | Ron Singer (1976-2008)

What brought you to Friends and how long did you teach here?

When Liz and I returned from Hawaii, I was teaching ESL part-time at Pace University. When my neighbor, Lou Rowan, invited me to apply for a vacant job at FS, I was skeptical because I thought of myself as a college teacher. But he coaxed me to visit, and watching Phil Schwartz’s English class, I thought I’d never teach such bright students unless I got a job at Harvard! So, when Lou (U.S. Head) and Ann Sullivan (Eng. Dept. Head) offered me the job, I took it. I stayed at FS from 1975-76 to 2008.

Many people in the community know you as an English teacher, can you share some of the other roles and duties you have held in addition to teaching?

I was Department Head for 5 years and also served on various committees, including the School Committee and the Multicultural Committee (where we navigated some of the shoals incidents to make Friends Seminary more inclusive).

Where did your passion for writing come from?

I have no idea. But I always liked to write, and was lucky to have teachers, from high school. on who brought me along. For example, the topic of my first paper for Freshman Comp. at Union College was to state my career goals and explain their rationale. I was then intending to be a History major and to go on to Law school. My paper elicited the comment, “You already have the pompous, inflated style of a second-rate trial lawyer.” My reaction was, “I’ll show her!” I then entered the College’s Creative Writing contest —and won! I immediately switched my major to English and signed up for the snobby CW class. That was one of many formative experiences. I was taught to sustain coherence by my thesis advisor, David Bevingon, of the University of Chicago. David remained a friend, and became a fan of my writing, until his death in 2019. He was among my inspirational teachers.

Your most recent book, Normans Cousin & Other Writings was recently published, can you share what it is about?

Since I wrote the back-cover blurb for the publisher, I’ll just quote from it: "Norman’s Cousin & Other Writings (Unsolicited Press, Portland, OR, June 2023): The engine for this selection of writings from Brooklyn and Manhattan (1974-the present) is story-telling, but beneath the plots lurk layers of madness and magic, as well as startling, genre-busting juxtapositions. For example, two related stories, “Buying a Car” and “Selling a Car,” are N.Y. City picaresques combined with technical automotive detail and the history of a marriage. Written almost three decades apart, these two stories mirror their times, from the 1970s recession to the wave of immigration that was a by-product of the war in Afghanistan…"

In what ways have Quaker values and your experience at Friends influenced you?

I think I started to get Q. values during my senior English class’s trip to Pendle Hill, in 1957-58. My experience at FS made me a committed advocate for social justice, which has governed my two careers (teaching and writing). My internationalism was already a value when I came to FS since I had served with the Peace Corps in Nigeria during a very tumultuous period in that new nation’s history (1964-67).

Are there any memorable projects or trips that you led or participated in while teaching at Friends?

In conjunction with my English 11 (American Lit) class, for years I led a Greenwich Village literary walking tour. When my daughter was in h.s. in Rome, since I was then teaching The Inferno, I used a small grant from FS to visit and photograph some of the spots Dante mentions. When I was teaching one of Nadine Gordimer’s books, I planned a trip to the 92nd St. YMWHA to hear her read. As it happened, on the day of the reading, it was announced that she was that year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I also taught a Comedy elective for 10th-graders. We produced our own humor magazine and made a field trip to Mad magazine. They gave me (or us, I forget) a copy of a cartoon poster of all their faces. One wag (Bill Gaines, maybe) wrote, on my copy, “Get well soon, Ron!” Since I hadn’t said anything about being unwell, this was obviously a joke.

You have written a few books about different countries in Africa, where did you develop this interest in the continent and how was your experience living in Nigeria?

I certainly started to develop this interest during my Peace Corps years and on a PC-sponsored trip to East Africa in 1965 or ‘66. Beginning in the 1990s, before writing my books about Africa, I wrote many articles, including a profile of Anthony Enahoro, a Nigerian statesman whom I had admired during the rough years of the ’60s. Thirty years later, when he was in exile in the U.S. from Sani Abacha’s military dictatorship, I spent a day interviewing him. A decade later, when I was thinking about writing my first book on Africa, still in touch with him, I expressed the doubt that, since I was not an academic, I might not be the right person to write the book I had in mind, a book of interviews with African pro-democracy leaders. Enahoro’s reply propelled me to embark on this enterprise: “No, no, Ron, you should write the book! You care about the people!” Uhuru Revisited (Africa World Press/Read Sea Press, 2015) is dedicated to Chief Enahoro, who died in 2010, the year I made my first return trip to Africa. In my teaching at FS, I also included several African writers. In addition to Gordimer, they included Wole Soyinka and Elechi Amadi (Nigeria) and Alan Paton and Athol Fugard (South Africa).

Do you have any advice or words of encouragement for our current English teachers?

I think they have to deal with the English educational nostrums and technological innovations that have become established since my day. This means any advice I might offer might be outdated, and hence, useless. But, since I can’t resist, here are one or two bones from an old dog: teach only books that you love and, as you prepare your lesson plans, remember Horace’s dictum, dulce et utile.


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