Tuesday, October 18, 2011

What We Were Going to Become

I was unpacking my office tonight and found report cards from elementary school. (Quick aside: I love the sound of "my office."  It's a bedroom on the main floor near to the kitchen and near the toys and near the baby, easy to slip in and slip out and it's mine all mine.  I feel so lucky and simultaneously sorry for the husband who received a man cave in the unfinished part of the basement with no finished walls, no windows.  But I kinda sorta think he doesn't care about things like finished walls and windows, so it works out all right.)
Anyhoo, here's my question for today after reading my report cards: Do you remember what you wanted to be when you were growing up?  And do you remember what people said you were good at at age nine?  Are you doing those things still? Are you good at them?

I have a distinct memory of knowing I wanted to write a book when I grew up.  I was seven years old or younger. How do I know? Because we hadn't yet moved from our home in San Jose (which we did when I was seven), and I was standing in our wide, sky-light lit family room thinking that there were two things I wanted most in the whole wide world:

(1) A Pretty-in-Pink Barbie doll

(2) I wanted to write a book. 

And not just a kid's picture book. No, when I was seven-or-younger, I knew I wanted to write a real, honest-to-God gritty story with words for details instead of pictures. It would be longer I knew, than your average novel. Maybe an inch thick. With small words and lots and lots of pages.

How do such things drop into our psyches at such young ages? Is it God who makes these deposits? If not, what natural forces conspire to make a seven year old know she wants to move people with words, lots of words, someday when she's so old, so old, like maybe thirty-three?

3rd grade: Heather is an excellent writer. She is very original, includes conversation, and is highly motivated. I'm looking forward to Heather's stories next year, too! (Please come and share!)

Let me pause for just a moment and consider what my MFA cohorts and I might have given for praise such as this, for a bar set so low that including conversation and being highly motivated were benchmarks of high achievement.  Our soul to the devil, I do believe.

4th: Well, I was sick this year. For months. And didn't go to school.  No prophecies here.

5th: Heather has very creative ideas. Shared and published this year. Applies all skills for written work. Enjoyed writing to Pen Pals in Bakersfield, CA.

Vaguely, yes vaguely, I remember the pen pals in Bakersfield. I felt sorry for them. Had they just suffered an earthquake? Or a fire?  Google isn't helping me out on this one.  But, lucky pen pals, I applied all my skills for written work. Those pupils got a freaking glorious composition, they did.

6th grade, spring: Heather has recently finished her story "Gum on the Gym Teacher's Shoe." She has applied spelling, capitalization and punctuation skills to her writing. (Halleluyer.)

6th grade, end-of-year: A voluminous reader who not only understands the pleasure of reading fiction, but sees it also as an avenue for self-understanding and enriching the spirit.  She has progressed so far in our writing program she is now confident to compose lengthy stories at the keyboard in the computer lab where she spends a great deal of time. She has discovered an intrinsic pleasure in herself to write.

My sixth grade teacher was part-prophet, part thorn in my side. He had too-high expectations of me, he did. Called me a "quitter" when I dropped out of the Program for Smart Kids just because I felt like it. His face got red. He shouted, sort of, at me and my friends Jenny and Brodie and told us we were a bunch of drop outs. I think I may have quit my editorial position on the school paper just to thumb my nose at him.  And one day, he got mad at me for writing such long stories that I used up more than my share of paper from the dot matrix printer. I was the only kid writing 25-page typewritten stories. I remember the scene of his indignation: It was after gym class, and he'd found a draft in the recycle bin and held it up in front of the entire gym-class line of students, his face flushing.  He was the greenest hippie guy I knew in 1989 in Iowa: long stories were admirable, sure, but saving trees was dire.  On the other hand, he was smart as a whip and wouldn't take crap from any kid, especially one who sold herself short.

Sometimes I dream about this teacher--I mean, I literally dream about him. I want to go back and ask him how--how he peered into my soul and knew what he knew when it took me another fifteen years after that to see the same thing. That I'm a writer.

I don't think it matters exactly what was named in us by someone else as long as it was true and productive; it is no less a blessing.  If you had the same gift of an adult naming your passion, of another person looking into you so deeply and calling out the very thing you most wanted in the world, do you share the same sense of gratitude?

It's as if a message in a tiny bottle was cast upon the seas of our youth and later washed up upon the beaches of middle adulthood where we find ourselves unrolling the scroll with the delight of recognition:

Dear [Heather], You are in your right place at your right time. And you always have been.

Such comfort, no?

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