There are days I’d like to go back and have a few words with my high school guidance counselor. Poor man, I’m sure he did the best he could to help a bunch of undeveloped teens from a mostly working-class community figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up. He did offer us standardized tests designed to help us identify our aptitudes for different kinds of work. Mine typically came back with career choices like park ranger because, in my seventeen-year old mind, I thought I might enjoy working outside somewhere. Like on the beach.
Because I was considered a bright student, I was placed in advanced math and science classes throughout which I remember learning absolutely nothing, while yet accomplishing excellent grades. My guidance counselor told me, “You’re good at math and science. You should be an engineer. They make lots of money.”
Having grown up in a household with very little money, I thought his suggestion seemed a sound one—even though I had no idea whatsoever what an engineer was. Or did. As a first generation college student, I packed up all my worldly belongings, headed off to the state university and declared myself an engineering student. Once I began my course work, I realized I was in no way, shape or form cut out to be an engineer. I also quickly realized I was not as good in math and science as my high school experience had led me to believe.
I changed my major to computer science and spent a couple of terms pretending to be interested in that field. At the time, programming classes required the use of key-punch machines and card readers. I quickly grew weary of staying up all night while waiting my turn at these machines, only to find I’d neglected to type in a symbol which caused my program to get stuck in an infinite do-loop.
By the time I figured out what I didn’t want to be, I checked to see what majors were still available to me. I needed one in which I could reconfigure my credits in a way which would allow me to graduate on time, so I settled on human services. While I remember next to nothing about the content from most of my course work, I learned I could always bang out a paper at the eleventh hour which would knock my professors’ socks off. Though I had little grasp of the concepts about which I was writing, I think my instructors were thoroughly relieved to come across a paper written in more-or-less complete sentences with few appalling grammatical glitches.
Several of my professors told me I was brilliant.
I have spent many years trying things and learning there are many at which I’m not especially good. Writing seems to have always been in the background somewhere, waiting for me to pay attention to it. I wish I, or someone else, had recognized that sooner.
My first foray into writing was an effort to summarize the stories from a stack of Highlights magazines in my home. A staple of medical and dental office waiting rooms, Highlights arrived in the mail every month offering hidden pictures, puzzles, and stories about Goofus, Gallant, and the Timbertoes. My siblings and I used to fight over who got to read each new issue first before they were summarily tossed onto the pile of old ones.
I loved reading the stories and it grieved me that, once read, they would be forgotten. I wanted to create some way of remembering which stories were contained in what issue, so I took out my lined school tablet and a pencil and began copying one sentence from each page of each magazine. I got so carried away with my project I was late returning after lunch to my second grade classroom. When I explained to my teacher what I was doing, she lit up and encouraged me to keep at it.
Like many young girls I believed myself, for a time, to be in love with horses and stories about them. I owned several copies of books by Marguerite Henry and checked all the others out from my local library. I remember fingering the covers of the books and wondering how they were made. I tried writing horse stories, again using my grade-school penmanship on lined school paper. I tried typing them out on my mother’s clunky, old manual typewriter. I drew pictures on cardboard and attempted to bind my books with glue or yarn. It seemed a mystery to me, however, how a person could make a thing like a book and have multiple copies produced. I figured book-making must happen in some magical place like New York. And, I assumed, it probably cost a lot of money to make a book.
Throughout grade school, several of my teachers recognized my ability to write. One year, I received a great deal of recognition for a timed writing assignment I had completed. My classmates and I were instructed to write non-stop for one minute, during which time our pencils were never to stop moving. I wrote down every line I could remember from the old Rowan and Martin Laugh-In show. Though my teacher raved about what I had done, for years I couldn’t figure out why she was so impressed. I had merely remembered and parroted back someone else’s words. Now I realize I had been learning to pay attention, develop an ear for language, and appreciate what was funny.
In an assignment for a high school creative writing class, I wrote about a man who wandered the streets of my hometown. His head was bald on top but long, stringy, gray hair flowed behind to him his shoulders. He walked slightly hunched over and muttered to himself as he shuffled along the streets. In my story, I turned him into a circus sideshow geek who had abandoned his family to travel as a performer. When the circus came to town, his wife found him scrambling about inside a tent biting the heads off and gobbling down live chickens. At the end of my story, the wife forgave all and they reunited.
With equal measures of disgust and admiration I’m sure, my teacher told me he thought I could be a writer. But, he said, I had to change the ending because it was not believable. Lately I’ve been wishing I could track down that teacher, thank him for his encouragement, and tell him I wish I’d listened to him way back then.
In recent years, I’ve written in a number of forms. I began with my family’s annual Christmas letter, something I’ve had a lot of fun putting together. Many friends and family members tell me they look forward to reading mine each year, even those who hate annual Christmas letters. Several have encouraged me to write a book, but I’m not sure I have one in me.
A couple of years ago, I decided I needed an actual writing project to test whether or not this writing thing was something I could really do. I spent about a year and a half interviewing a dear elderly friend who was losing a treasure chest full of memories to dementia. I compiled her stories and bound them at a local Staples She gave them as gifts to family and friends the Christmas before she died. I’ve also collected notebooks and file folders full of my own family stories because I believe there is so much value in preserving these accounts. They sit in drawers like pieces of unfinished quilts and I’m not quite sure what I will ever do with them.
I have been blogging for nearly three years, something I was embarrassed to tell my husband I was doing until I had been at it for a number of months. I do several kinds of writing on my blog, but my husband says story-telling is my sweet spot. He has encouraged me to attend writing conferences and participate in this workshop. A handful of my pieces have been published online and in print, and I have earned a very few couple of dollars. I have both business cards and a Facebook page which declare me to be a writer, so I guess it’s true.
A favorite quote of mine by author George Eliot is, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” I wish I had paid better attention throughout the years to the role writing played in my life. And I would like to be able to go back and track down my high school teacher and let him know I’ve found my way back to writing. I also think I should find my guidance counselor and tell him I never did become a park ranger.
Joining Jen and the sisterhood: