Author’s Note: Below is an essay I wrote this past fall as part of a contest I didn’t win. So it may not be award winning writing, but it seems pertinent to publish today. And so I share it with you. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. May you find your own pot of gold.
My second grade teacher was Mrs. Morrison. She was the teacher the first graders began whispering about in May and feared being assigned without really knowing or understanding why. Strict. Mean. Hard. That was the extent of the vocabulary available to me and my seven-year-old peers to describe her. Words that struck a chord of discontent and unease without real fact upon which to base them – par for the course of the younger elementary school set who still asked their parents to check under the bed for monsters (pointing finger at self).
I’m not sure what my initial reaction was to Mrs. Morrison on the first day of school in 1983. I do know that she was an elfin woman, short in stature with close-cropped black hair and reading glasses that she wore on a chain around her neck. I’m not sure why she needed the chain since I can’t picture her without those half-mooned glasses perched on the end of her nose, eyebrows raised as she peered over their rims waiting at the blackboard for your answer. She had a mesmerizing reading voice, clear and steady and thick; never scratchy or watery or too high. She ran a tight ship, but it was easy to stay on her good side. She demanded the best of her students and, on most occasions, received it. She was tough (now as the parent of an eight-year-old second grade boy myself, I understand why) and, although it wasn’t the popular opinion, I loved her.
We were given story prompts often that year, the barebones beginnings to practice our grammar, handwriting and knowledge of story basics. Only one prompt assignment stands out, however, sparklingly detailed in my mind’s eye through a haze of generic second grade memories. It was March, approaching St. Patrick’s Day. I’m sure our days had been spent discussing the science behind rainbows, sorting “gold” coins in math and learning about Irish culture, although I honestly don’t recall. What I do remember is the story prompt:
“One day, while walking in the woods behind my house, I thought I saw a tiny little man…”
Leprechauns and St. Patrick’s Day did not particularly resonate with me. I remember that panicky feeling of the blank page in front of me, of students in the desks next to me scribbling out sentences with ease, the fear tickling my scalp that I had nothing to say. Finally I put pencil to paper and simply started writing: “He looked like a leprechaun. He talked like a leprechaun. He was a leprechaun!” The act of starting opened the door. I moved my protagonist through a relatively raucous encounter with an extremely large leprechaun family, forcing her to face sure and dire consequences when her parents found out about the mayhem these little green creatures had caused in their home but then wrapping it all up at the bottom of the page in a joyful ending with the leprechauns discarding their mischievous ways to put the house aright and share their gold at the end of the rainbow with the protagonist and her family.
Mrs. Morrison lauded this small little sliver of amateur story telling. I’m sure smiley faces and gold stars were involved. I was so proud of my effort and subsequent praise from such a tough teacher that I sent a copy of the story – in a large, stamped envelope as these were the days before email and attachments – to my English teacher aunt. In return, she’d typed it up on her word processor, printed it in italics with justified margins and sent it back to me framed in a bright sunshine gold colored mat with a note congratulating me on what an excellent story I had written. That story hung on my bedroom wall next to the door so that I saw it every time I left my room. It remained there until my parents moved out of my childhood home two decades later.
Something about that experience sparked a tiny ember for me. A small piece of my soul had been exposed and it felt good to let the sun shine on it. A secret desire to be a writer of the books I adored and devoured as a reader began to take root in that small glow. But for some reason, I didn’t share it. Not publicly. Not in reality. Later, in middle school, I attended the Duke Young Writer’s Camp and adored every minute. I developed a creative writing independent study for myself in high school and worked on the literary magazine. But when push came to college, I opted for practical. I graduated with a degree from the Journalism School. It was writing. It paid the bills. It seemed a perfect match.
And so a career in public relations was launched. And while riding the Metro to work in Washington, D.C., I scribbled in a journal. I bought books filled with writing prompts and filled pages with random observations on my grandmother’s hands or the smell of fear or my first memory. I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Stephen King’s On Writing, Joyce Carol Oates’ The Faith of a Writer for inspiration. I secretly fed my pent up desires at night while toiling away at AP-style press releases by day. A move to Atlanta so my husband could attend grad school left me hungry for my own outlet and an opportunity to meet people. I took creative writing courses at the Margaret Mitchell House. I fanned the flame. I took my writing more seriously, but still not seriously enough. Then I had babies.
Having children illuminated my own life like a stage spotlight with no escape from its harsh reality. My children inspire me to be the best mother I can be, to be a better person, to live my true life as an example of the life I wish for them – a life of sincerity, generosity, hope, passion, love and fulfillment. I decided perhaps it was time to walk the walk. It was time to recognize and fertilize the tiny plant struggling inside. It was time to focus more on writing. I spoke out into the universe that I wanted to try my hand at a freelance writing career, something manageable with two young boys underfoot. Imagine my surprise when it was my friend, Kristine, and not the universe that answered.
Her husband’s start-up was in need of some public relations assistance. One meeting with her charismatic husband/CEO and I was sold. I wanted in. This was an exciting new business. One I understood and felt good about promoting. The schedule would be flexible, part time, family-friendly. It included a steady paycheck and screamed practical (that dastardly word again).
I had a blast at this job. It was fun, challenging, satisfying. Then, this past spring, after two and a half years, my contract was terminated.
After losing the security of a day-to-day job and taking the inevitable moment for self-reflection and consideration of next steps, I realized I didn’t want to look for another public relations job. I didn’t want to write words that needed massaging and tweaking and rearranging to better fit a brand message. I didn’t want to write quotes and talking points and words for others. I wanted to say things. I wanted a creative life. I wanted impracticality for a change. I wanted leprechauns.
After a summer of fun with my now eight and four year old boys, I am rededicated. I am taking the risk. I am telling myself that I am a writer. And that decision is filled with all the same warm joy I felt when I hung that silly story on my wall.
As an eight-year-old second grader, my heart of hearts decided I was a writer. It took the rest of me 30 additional years to finally believe it.