Monday, February 13, 2017

Part 1: High School Twice

No one escapes high school.

Graduate or drop out, but the memories linger. You smile at them or puzzle over them or imagine how you could have handled issues differently. Like it or not, those formative years are never far from you.

The same is true for high school teachers, too.

I discovered this recently when my friend Laurel encountered one of our high school English teachers who is now 100 years old. She told Laurel she was sorry the department did not give me the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Essay Award. They chose someone who wrote a standard academic response to that year's writing prompt. Mine was more moving, deemed "emotional" by some faculty members. Yet she still believed my determination would have prevailed all the way to Nationals.

That had happened 50 years ago, and her regret continued.

After Laurel secured her address, I sent the teacher my book with a note assuring her that I had persevered as an ambitious writer, despite that early loss. Honestly I hadn't thought about that missed nomination in decades. She had. More than anything, I hoped my reply set her free at long last.

Sometimes schools get it wrong. 

It did, however, make me consider many of my former high school students and how they remembered those turbulent years. I wondered how their choices had impacted their lives and how they'd made peace or not with what they'd done or what had been done to them. Their written reflections from January 2016 through January 2017 were astounding but not surprising, based on how I knew their uncommon teenaged selves. My blog readers, who'd never met them or ever been to Oklahoma, were undone by their honest observations.

Now it falls to me, in all fairness, to evaluate my seven years with them at the school.

I never wanted to be a teacher.

I resisted the occupation from the time I was in first grade when I started being encouraged to consider the profession. I wanted to be a writer and thought I was headed that way when I landed an editorial job after graduate school.

Not so.

After almost a year at the company, I discovered it was in financial trouble, deeply and dangerously. I sought a way out. Through a series of unexpected events, I was hired to teach at Holland Hall Upper School. Keep in mind that independent schools typically function under guidelines exempting them from hiring state-certified teachers.

The Head of the English Department invited me to his house to meet the woman I was replacing. He assumed she'd be helpful. She was. But not in the way he intended. The curriculum discussion quickly ended when she began outlining her personal experience there as a teacher. As he attempted to change the subject, she leaped to her feet, charged toward the door, and snapped, " Of course I'm right! Look what they've hired! An innocent young girl!" 

I reeled.

I didn't think she was misleading me about the job I'd landed (out of desperation, not desire), but I had no way to understand the ordeal she'd described.

Schools had always adored me.

I was that polite, quiet girl who made perfect grades easily. Teacher's pet. Respected by my peers. I was some sort of editor for every printed publication. I wrote the school's monthly radio show. I was either in every play or headed a technical crew. I was awarded Best Girl Whatever in all kinds of clubs. The drama teachers permanently extricated me from study hall to serve as their assistant for anything that needed doing, which covered plenty in a large public high school. (Nevertheless, as straight arrow as this all sounds, my Saturday night hijinx were alarmingly risky, but I kept that under wraps, as clever teenagers often do.) 

In graduate school, English professors frequently admitted they saved my papers for last to spur themselves forward. I'd received an award for outstanding writing my first year and honorable mention the second year.

Exemplary. Competent. That's how I'd always been perceived in schools.

Things were about to change.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Hail Mary Pass

Every year we watch the Super Bowl, although I'm mostly interested in the snacks and half-time show.

I don't know a thing in the world about the game itself, but I know a metaphor when I see it.

It looked bad for the New England Patriots on Sunday night. Tom Brady threw pass after pass that overshot the mark, when he could even get the ball into the air. Time and again he was knocked down.

As successful as he'd been over the years, nothing worked for most of the game. The camera often showed him slumped on the bench, looking baffled. Who could blame him? But he never looked defeated. He'd get up and run onto the field once more when his team had the ball. And he'd watch his plan slip out from under his fingers yet again.

People said Brady couldn't do it. He couldn't fight the odds as the Falcons' score charged ahead.

He did though.

That's the part about football that takes my breath away.

I know they practice relentlessly. I know a plan requires someone to break loose and run left as
someone else tackles so and so and the quarterback throws a ball. But in the tangled collisions, as the quarterback steps free, every pass looks like a Hail Mary to me. With hope sailing on a wing and a prayer, a teammate rises above his own doubt. He catches the ball and runs. Weaving through those stampeding mountains, he sprints across a thin white line of disbelief.

You can say it's all about muscle and strategy.

To me, it's a matter of faith.

That's what happened at the critical second when Brady threw and James White caught. 

I say this, not because I have any insight into sports, but because I know that slumped-on-a-bench feeling.

Authors famously recount tales of receiving dozens of rejections, searching for that one editor who rises up, contract in hand, to seize the project.

Talent aside, it's a writer's resilience, sometimes spanning decades, that gets a manuscript over the thin white line.

Recently I tacked note cards with colored stars on my bulletin board. They chart my effort. Every time a rejection arrives, I have a choice to stay on the bench or run onto the field. No cameras. No crowds. Just me, a story, and another Hail Mary Pass.

But you don't have to be a writer or a quarterback to understand facing impossible odds.

Someone eating popcorn in the stands will always think you can't do it.

But someone will think you can.

Go on.


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