Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My First Novel

I was a secret writer as a kid. In elementary school, I wrote stories and poems in special blue notebooks I bought at the dimestore and kept hidden at the back of my closet. At eleven, I took on the novel. I would write about slavery, I decided—about a girl my age, escaping from a cotton plantation in the deep South, traveling north on the Underground Railroad. I came home from school every day, closed by bedroom door behind me, and fell into the world of my story. When I finished, I recopied it (forty pages!) in my best handwriting, drew some pictures to go along with it, and made a special front page with the title on it: Slave Girl. Then I sent it off to a New York publisher whose address I found in the front of a library book. Soon I would be rich and famous, I thought.

Alas, soon afterwards, we got to the Civil War unit in social studies and I learned that the Underground Railroad was not a subway train that ran from Atlanta to New York City, as I had imagined it to be. I felt sick at heart, thinking of someone in New York reading my book and laughing at my mistake. You are too stupid to be a writer, I told myself. Quit now, before you make a bigger fool of yourself than you already have.

And I did quit--for nearly twenty years! But I never stopped wanting to write. Nearing thirty, with a husband and two daughters I adored and a teaching job I found exciting and fulfilling, I knew, in my heart, that I’d consider my life a failure if I never even gathered up the courage to try.

It was the mid-seventies, schools were in flux after the turbulence of the Sixties and the social reforms it had wrought, and serendipity had brought me to an innovative program called Learning Unlimited at North Central High School in Indianapolis. Most of the staff members were young, creative, and passionate about education. We declared the whole world our classroom; we declared teachers and students equals, learning in it together. We believed that teenagers were capable of making important decisions about their own lives, and engaged them in the process of choosing, planning and executing their own learning experiences. During the time I taught there, teachers and students traveled to New York to experience the arts firsthand; to the Florida Keys to study marine biology; to the Navajo reservation at Rough Rock, Arizona to observe Native American culture. We encouraged students to draw on the resources in our own community to learn what they needed to know.

We made up our own classes and seminars, too. “Writing in the Real World” was one of mine. Once a week, a dozen or so students climbed into the program van, and I drove them all over the city in search of stories. We visited a map factory, the women’s prison. We went to a nursing home and talked to people about their lives, watched the sound check for a rock concert.

One day, back in the classroom, several students got to talking about what they planned to do when they grew up.

“What about you?” one of them asked me.

“I am grown up,” I said. “Remember? I’m your teacher.”

He pressed me, as teenagers do. “But is that what you want to do?”

“I love my job,” I said. “Teaching makes me happy.” This was (and still is) true.

“Did you always want to be a teacher?” he asked. “Is it the only thing you ever wanted to do?”

Anxiety rippled through me. I’d sworn to myself that I wouldn’t be one of those adults who lied to kids or avoided the hard questions. I couldn’t lie or dissemble now. So I said, as casually as I could, “Oh, once I wanted to be a writer.”

He looked at me. “Wanted?” he asked. “You don’t want that anymore?”

I shrugged.

He kept looking at me.

Busted, I thought. I may find out I really am too dumb to be a writer, but if I want this kid to keep respecting me, if I want the right to keep expecting him to do his best work for me, I’ve got to put myself on the line here and give it a try.

So I began.

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