Finding Joy Through Writing and Teaching
Issue   |   Fri, 11/07/2014 - 01:28
Melissa Kantor ’91
Kantor accredits the Amherst education for helping her become an innovative thinker.

For college students across the nation who have too many interests and don’t know exactly which direction to take in the future, Melissa Kantor ’91 is a prime role model. Exploring a variety of interests that led her down many different paths, Kantor has pursued what she honestly finds the most happiness in doing. Today, this include being a young adult novelist of eight books, an English teacher and, most recently, dean of faculty at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

Life at Amherst

“When I was in seventh grade, I told people I was going to be a writer,” Kantor said. She said she was especially interested in creative writing. In high school, Kantor pursued that passion, writing stories and by extension, acting out stories in theater performances. It was something that came naturally to her, writing out of her imagination.

However, after entering Amherst College, Kantor found herself exposed to many opportunities to try other fields and slowly began to fall in love with the study of political science.

“I took Poli Sci 11 with Professor Tom Dumm, which was just amazing. If there were any courses at Amherst that blew my mind, it was Tom Dumm’s Poli Sci 11 and a course that he used to teach about punishment,” Kantor said. “Both were just unbelievable to me. They changed the way I thought, the way I wrote, the way I articulated my ideas and thought about the value of my ideas.”

Her newfound passion for political science showed Kantor what she really wanted to study intensively at Amherst. In her four years in college, she didn’t do much creative writing at all and instead focused on writing academic papers and studying critical theory. But while Kantor did end up majoring in political science, she also couldn’t deny her other passion for creative writing, which led to a double major in English.

Her interests in both of these fields sharpened her writing skills even further. Kantor attributes much of her clear and distinct writing style to her political science thesis advisor, Professor Austin Sarat.

“I feel like Tom taught me how to think and Austin taught me how to write,” Kantor said. “He really encouraged us to write in a very direct, straightforward way in a time when loquacious writing that really called attention to itself was fashionable. He was critical of work that was not clear or was not direct and was not purposefully so. And so that was a very important thing for me when I carried on writing books on my own, when I was writing novels and also in my teaching of writing."

Sarat remembers Kantor quite distinctly, even years after she graduated from Amherst: “Melissa Kantor was, from the first moment I met her, an intellectual sparkplug,” he said. “She took nothing for granted and questioned every bit of conventional wisdom. She brought an uncommon liveliness to her work and was, as a result, a real pleasure to work with. Moreover, I remember her as a warm, funny, engaging person. I loved talking with her.”

Aside from her academic interests at Amherst, Kantor recalled spending a lot of time winding down from the intensity of her studies by having fun and doing what she wanted to.

“I did Women’s Speak. which was a month long celebration of women,” she said. “I did a group that worked doing some education and counseling around sexual harassment. I drank a lot of beer. I kind of did what I did. I spent a lot of time hanging out with my friends. I also feel like I literally spent my years there reading at a café in town called Bonducci’s.”

New Places

After graduating from Amherst, Kantor left for Israel and lived there for a full year, teaching at an American school. When her year in Israel came to an end, Kantor returned to New York for a few months before embarking on yet another journey, this time to Zimbabwe.

“In Zimbabwe, I was doing development work. I was working with women’s organizations for a while and doing some work with small businesses as well as some literacy work, “ Kantor said.

But Zimbabwe was not a permanent home for her. She said she found her time there interesting, but “not really for me.” After spending two years abroad, Kantor found herself back in New York, searching for work that would both inspire and challenge her.

Finding Her Niche

After coming back to the States, Kantor found a position teaching English at St. Ann’s School, where she is now the dean of faculty. While teaching at St. Ann’s, she went back to school and obtained her master’s in English.

She has been teaching at the school since then and describes these years as her most rewarding.

“I’ve been working at this school for a long time. It’s really a school that’s committed to a life of the mind and celebration of the arts. And I feel like I’ve contributed to that in significant ways,” Kantor said. “And thinking about students that I’ve taught successfully or classes that I’ve done well is something that definitely gives me satisfaction.”

Rekindling First Love

Yet despite all these other interests, Kantor has continued to relentlessly pursue her passion for writing young adult fiction. After coming back to the U.S. and pursuing graduate studies in English, she couldn’t help but start to do some of her own writing again. “I returned to that first love,” she said.

When Kantor started writing fiction again, she found herself interested in catering to a very specific category of people: teenagers.

This wasn’t the audience she initially had in mind; it was only after a good friend of hers, Helen Bernstein, an editor at a publishing house, suggested that she focus on a young adult audience that Kantor started to find what she wanted to write and for whom.

Bernstein sees Kantor as “a focused and earnest writer who gets into the heart and soul of a character. Much of Melissa’s success as a Y.A. author has been connecting to her audience through her characters. Her books are character driven and delve into real issues and emotions.”

Kantor describes writing for young adults enjoyable because a person’s high school years can be particularly exciting.
“You’re making decisions about your future and navigating complicated friendships,” she said. “I think in the adult life, if you’re lucky and you have some good resources, you can kind of weather storms. But I mean if you have a breakup as a teenager, you really believe — I certainly believe — that you’re never ever going to be happy again. A teenager can just feel that way about anything, and I can feel sympathetic to it. I think that’s why.”

Kantor’s recently published books include “Maybe One Day,” published just this year, as well as “The Darlings In Love” and “The Darlings Are Forever,” also published this year.

Just Her

But even as an author of eight young adult fiction books, teacher and dean at a prestigious school, at the end of the day, Kantor is a mother, wife, and precious friend.

Nancy Updike ’91, a fellow Amherst alumna, recalled meeting her at Amherst one Tuesday Night Tap party.
“She was funnier than everyone else in the room, which is always true, and we’ve been friends since then. As far as I’m concerned, Melissa is a mutant, like Wolverine, and her mutation is being overall more excellent: more disciplined, harder working, more savvy,” Updike said. “I am one of many people who would be lost without her.”

Kantor attributes a lot of her growth as a thinker and as a person to her time at Amherst. She remembers that she arrived at the college as a very good and obedient student who was extremely hard-working. However, she admits that she didn’t know how to be an interesting thinker.

“The degree to which I think about things in complicated ways is something I learned at Amherst,” she said. “I am enormously grateful to the school for that. I hope that people who are students there right now are really part of this celebration of the life of the mind of just thinking about things.”