Appreciations, part 1 of 3: Parents and Teachers
Hello, blog I'm supposed to be updating daily but instead have been hitting maybe twice a month! For the record, I'm a little embarrassed at the high percentage of Examiner posts in my Uber-RSS. It's like, I used to write fiction, but now I'm totally selling out on SEO content writing for cents on the click. *hangs head in shame*
But I've been having these writing-related thoughts recently. Some of them go like this: "Damn, I should be writing. Why have I not written today?" But some of them are more interesting, and they don't fit well under the "Boulder Writing Examiner" rubric. So. Lucky thing I have this personal blog, right?
I've been thinking about what it means to have known since age 6 that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. Age 6 can be a pretty blissful time, but it's not ideal if you want people to actually take your hopes and dreams seriously. I have memories of being asked, repeatedly, by aunts and uncles and friends of my parents, "What's your favorite dinosaur, Niki?" not because anyone was interested in the answer, but because it was so cute that a kid in first grade could reliably pronounce a 5-syllable word. (That word, for the record, was "Archeopteryx.") I remember being very aware of this well-meaning but patronizing behavior on the part of the grown-ups around me, of being treated like a well-trained pet who could do a trick. Being six doesn't mean being oblivious.
(I think a lot of grown-ups musn't actually remember what it was like to be six. Or sixteen, for that matter.)
Anyway, I remember being mildly irritated every time I got the question, because I knew that the interest implied by the asking of the question was in fact a lie. A mild lie, but a lie nonetheless. But I answered, because I wanted someone to actually share my enthusiasm for the giant feathered ancestor-of-birds I was naming, and maybe this time this grown-up wasn't asking under false pretenses. Also, at that age, praise from grown-ups is nice, even if it comes in pathetic dribs and drabs and for all the wrong reasons such that it also leaves you feeling a little squicked.
Which is not to say that I was traumatized for life by these interactions. Just that I remember them quite well. Grown-ups ask small children questions, small children think it means the adult is actually interested in what they have to say, small children discover grown-ups' questions were actually a formalized construction of "Dance, monkey, dance." Age six is a terrible time to expect anyone to take you seriously.
So what I want to express my appreciation for is this: Parents who did take me seriously. The archeopteryx thing might have been an unfortunate example of the "dance, monkey, dance" phenomenon, but when they asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" and I said, "A writer," they listened.
Actually, my first answer to that question was, "An artist." I was always scribbling, doodling, drawing things--unicorns, mostly--and I enjoyed it so much I figured I'd keep on doing it. I'd eventually have paintings on display in museums and galleries. I'd get hired to illustrate picture books and paint novel covers.
And my parents' response to this was to present me with sketch notebooks, canvases, acrylics, cray-pas, charcoals. Painting lessons. This was not all at or before age six, of course; as long as I evinced interest in using these tools, they supplied me with them.
But age six was the approximate time when I discovered writing.
At Metairie Park Country Day, elementary school--or "Lower School" as it's called there, which I understand is not the typical terminology--is divided into a series of homerooms. Kindergarten, first, and second grades are in the six classrooms that comprise the first floor of the Atrium. Upstairs are four homerooms of third and fourth graders, and four more of fifth and sixth graders. That, at least, was the arrangement when I was passing through, roughly between 1981 and 1988. During my first three years there, I was in Mrs. Waters's homeroom, room 6.
At the beginning of first grade, Mrs. Waters walked the six or seven of us around the room to show us the new privileges and responsibilities we'd get now that we'd graduated out of kindergarten. We'd have actual class times, math and vocabulary and so on, each in different areas of the big homeroom. We'd have actual homework. (Actual homework! Like the big kids had! Wow!) And over here, on the desk positioned between two class areas and near the play-with-blocks area, was a cardboard stand with hanging files in it, and each of us had a hanging file with our name on it, and in our file was a spiral notebook.
In this spiral notebook, each of us was expected to write one page per day.
"Write what?" Anything we wanted.
I approached this daily task grudgingly at first. What was I supposed to write about? The sky is blue and I had instant oatmeal for breakfast. Maple and brown sugar flavor. I wish it wasn't so hot out. Tonight we are going to a movie.
But somewhere during that first semester I began to use the introductory phrase Once upon a time. After which, Story happened. I started writing fiction. Wish-fulfillment stories about the kid I had a crush on. Fantastic stories about my imaginary friends. Moralistic tales about a horse foal who turned into a unicorn overnight and got shunned by the other barnyard animals until he ran away from home, and then they all missed him and wanted him to come back. Weird dream-like tales about getting taken to the land of the unicorns where they eat rainbows and sleep half-submerged in hot springs. (Unicorns were rather a theme.)
Suddenly, a single page stopped being enough room to write in. I started ending my daily pages with "To be continued." I heard Mrs. Waters tell my mom, once, at one of the periodic parent-teacher meetings, "She's writing these multi-part serials now. I have to wait until the next day to find out what happens next."
But the light didn't really go on until we were all given a holiday poem-writing assignment--Easter, I think it was--and the next day I walked into the classroom to see my poem on display. (Was this age six, really, or am I remembering 3rd grade now?) My poem, written in wide-tip marker on the huge lined cardstock pages taller than we were. Wow. Apparently I didn't just enjoy writing; I was writing things that someone else enjoyed reading.
I think that, whether it was the Easter poem in first grade or the get-well-soon poem to a classmate in third, whichever it was, that was when my answer changed.
"What do you want to be when you grow up?"
And my parents never said, "But what will you do to earn money?" And they didn't just say, "That's nice," and then tell their friends how cute it was that Niki thought she wanted to be a writer. No. Instead, Mom brought me home a Fisher-Price typewriter. It had a red plastic body and white plastic keys, and it looked like a toy but it was perfectly functional. I soon learned to put two pages in at once to protect the platen, how to insert the pages so they came out even and not crooked, and not to touch the ribbon if I didn't want to get ink all over my fingers. I didn't learn to touch-type, not yet, but I got pretty comfortable hunting and pecking my way through more stories about unicorns, classmates I liked, pop stars I adored, and more unicorns. I caught Mom reading some of them aloud on the phone to relatives. It made me embarrassed--and proud.
So that's my first appreciation: Parents who took my writing seriously even before I know it could be taken seriously, and teachers who encouraged me to discover exactly how seriously I wanted to take it. You have to enjoy writing for its own sake, I think, to make writing your life, but sometimes it takes a reader's overt act of positive feedback to make you realize you can be a writer.
I didn't realize how fortunate I was back then. A lot of kids did get told, "It's nice to dream, dear, but... what will you do for a real job?" or, heavens forfend, "Erm, well, try not to show off. Boys don't like girls who are smarter than them." I got told, instead, "A writer, huh? Great! Here's some tools and here are classes and by the way did you write today?" I was lucky. Heck, I was lucky, and had no idea how lucky, just to have a simple, unremarkable childhood in a functional family with loving parents, a roof over our heads, and food regularly on the table. It's scary how many kids don't get even that, growing up. To have that and to have unquestioning parental support for whatever answer I gave to the question "What do you want to be when you grow up?" Breathtaking.
Which makes it sort of silly to complain the archeopteryx thing, doesn't it? And I'm not. I'm not complaining. I'm just remembering it, and remembering how I felt about it. There were lots of things I said at six, or at sixteen, that didn't get taken seriously, which often left me frustrated. But "I'm going to be a writer when I grow up" was not one of them.
You know Barbara Sher's Wishcraft? How she encourages you to answer honestly questions like, "Were you treated as though you had a unique kind of genius that was loved and respected?" and "Were you told that you could do and be anything you wanted—and that you’d be loved and admired no matter what it was?" By page 20 or so I was in tears of gratitude, because my answer to most of the questions in chapter 2 was Yes.
I often wish I could meet my biological parents and tell them, "The people who adopted little infant me? Awesome people. You made a good choice. I have no idea what would have happened if you'd chosen otherwise, but given what you did choose, everything worked out great." Because it did. Everything that really mattered did.