I started this whole adventure in blogging (and, no, I still don’t like that word) a few days after getting the news that I was being laid off from my previous job. Those of you who have been following my sojourn through the past 10+ months, either through my posts here or in person or some combination of the two, know that this time has been an extraordinary — and occasionally terrible — gift.
Before I get too caught up in celebrating the job that I will start next Monday, the job that is as perfect a fit for me as any I’ve ever had, I want to tell you a story. Truth be told, I always want to tell you a story.
When I was in 10th grade, my homeroom was English class, and my teacher was an extremely strict and reserved woman named Mrs. Baker. She was a younger, more tightly wrapped version of my ninth grade English teacher Mrs. Richardson, about whom I wrote in July. Toward the end of the third quarter of the academic year, Mrs. Baker passed out registration forms so we could sign up for classes for the next academic year. I dutifully filled mine out, turned it in, and thought that was that.
At the beginning of class the next day, Mrs. Baker fixed me with a stern look and said she needed to speak to me after class. It may be hard to believe, but I was a bit of a Romper Room Do-Bee in those days, so I was freaked out about staying after class. I spent the whole hour frantically attempting to fathom what I could have done to have gotten in trouble.
When the bell signaled the end of class, I slunk up to Mrs. Baker’s desk and she froze me with an icy stare that was usually directed at our class clowns. “I see on your registration form that you haven’t signed up for Journalism with Mr. Clemons.” In my head, I thought, “Damn right I haven’t! That dude scares the crap outta me!!” Outwardly, I politely responded, “That’s right. Journalism conflicts with Photography class.”
“Pho-TOG-ra-PHYYYY???!!?!?!” sputtered Mrs. Baker in a rare loss of composure. She then repeated her outburst, her face turning a shade of red I didn’t know she had in her. I stood there speechless and goggle-eyed. She stood up from her desk, calmed herself by smoothing her skirt and tugging on her jacket, and said, “We can fix this. Come with me.”
I followed Mrs. Baker with my heart in my throat. If I had a tail, it would have been curled so far between my legs that it would have been tickling my nose. We headed down the stairs to Mr. Clemons’ classroom, where Mrs. Baker knocked on Mr. Clemons’ open door and asked if “we” could have a word with him. What “we”?? I had no intention of opening my mouth. He motioned us in with a grand sweep of his arm.
Mrs. Baker proceeded to tell Mr. Clemons that there was “a mistake” in my registration form for 11th grade, and asked him if it was still possible for me to get into his Journalism I class. She assured him that I was one of her best students, and a fine writer. Meanwhile, I was stiff with terror and mute from the effort of trying not to throw up, wet my pants, or both. I was sure my teeth were chattering audibly, like a frightened cartoon character’s.
Mr. Clemons sat back and took in the spectacle of fear that was me, smiled, and asked “You’re Les Howard’s sister, right?” I nodded with relief, since I knew my brother had been more of a Romper Room DON’T Bee in Mr. Clemons’ class five years before. Maybe I’d get lucky and guilt by association would disqualify me from entry into his class! My heart sank when he chuckled and said, “I always enjoyed Les, although I’m not sure it was mutual. I’d be happy to have you in Journalism I.”
And thus was the “mistake” in my registration form corrected.
If my 9th grade English teacher Mrs. Richardson taught me to love the music of language, then my two years in Journalism I and II with Mr. Clemons taught me to love the process of investigation and the craft of writing stories — that is, once I stopped feeling like I was going to throw up, pee my pants, or both any time I was in Mr. Clemons’ presence.
It’s funny to reconnect with my Journalism classmates now that we’re all flawed adults, and not attempting to be perfect teenagers (whether perfectly good or perfectly bad). To a person, each of my classmates with whom I’ve reconnected has admitted to being scared to death of Mr. Clemons that first year; for some of us that fear extended into senior year. He was like a hard-ass coach for whom I always wanted to give my best performance. He expected us to be excellent. Many of us didn’t agree with him on the notion that we had excellence in us, but he didn’t care whether we agreed or not. When we weren’t excellent, he expected us to make the appropriate corrections and get to excellence by another way.
I had a great two years under Mr. Clemons’ mentoring. I worked my ass off with a phenomenal newspaper staff that was a crazy-quilt mixture of prom queens, athletes, freaks, geeks, wall flowers, and everything in between. In our senior year, we put out a consistently great paper, navigated our way through controversies, had fun, argued, won awards, and became as much a team as in any sport I’ve ever played. For our staff photo in the last issue of the paper, we dressed up like a bunch of lunatics and posed in the line-up room at our town’s police headquarters.
To my surprise and delight, by my senior year Mr. Clemons and I developed a rapport that was infused with mutual respect and admiration. By that I mean we teased each other mercilessly and fearlessly.
One day I wandered into the Journalism classroom after school, wearing a red Union Suit under a pair of railroad stripe bib overalls. Mr. Clemons sang out in his best Bert Parks imitation, “There she iiiiis — Missed Amerrrrricaaaaaa!” Then he sized up my goofy outfit, guffawed and said, “You’ll never believe what award you’ve just won — the DAR Good Citizenship Award.” Yes, Internets, that’s DAR as in Daughters of the American Revolution. Mr. Clemons motioned bewilderedly at my get-up and added, “Obviously they know NOTHING about you!”
We both laughed until we were wheezing. Then he took great pleasure watching me react to the news that the award would be given to me at a tea to which my mother and I were invited. “TEA?? Are you freaking kidding me?!” I asked.
He assured me that he was not freaking kidding me, adding, “And NO, you may NOT wear whatever it is that you’re wearing right now.” And then he began to laugh until the tears rolled down his cheeks.
This is all context for explaining why I have spent most of my adult life feeling like I peaked in high school, in the sense that it was an era where I was firing on all cylinders (well, except the fashion cylinder), and was immersed in my greatest passion — writing. I made peace with it as best I could, but I spent decades worried that I disappointed Mr. Clemons since I hadn’t gone into a field that demanded my best writing, or any writing at all.
When I was assembling my portfolio of writing samples to apply for the job I will begin next week, I debated about including my journalism work from high school. They had specifically asked for samples of journalism work I had done, and I went as far as asking “Does it matter how old it is?” because I knew that the best journalism writing I’ve done (so far) was from high school.
I polled my Facebook friends about it, and they were unanimously in favor of including it, especially the people who had walked the Journalism path with me. I was worried that it would solidify the case that I had peaked in high school. So I told my worries to go sit in a time out chair, and began assembling a portfolio that included samples of my writing dating back to when I was 17 years old.
The portfolio wasn’t particularly thick, but it was long on variety. I included high school journalism articles, book jacket copy I wrote in my year as a publicist for a publishing house in New York, poetry, technical writing, marketing brochures, and three blog posts from this past year.
As I sifted through my lifetime of writing to build the portfolio, it dawned on me that this was the first job I’ve ever pursued that explicitly asked me to bring all of myself to it, stretching back into my teenage years. As I worked to push out of my mind the very real possibility that I might not get this job, given the vagaries of the job market and the fact that I was an unconventional candidate, I felt an internal tectonic shift.
All those layers of embarrassment, even shame, at having deferred my dream for so long began to rearrange themselves into a landscape of relief. If I did get this job, it would mark a kind of return to the beginning, the completion of a strangely circular odyssey that has taken me through a professional terrain that was often hard, dry, and barren of any creative possibility. This journey included a recent job where a manager once told me, angrily, “Your entire job is to CUT and PASTE. That is ALL!”
If I didn’t get this job, I still had my portfolio, this blog, and most importantly an enormous and amazing posse of family and friends to remind me that my dream of becoming a writer never died while I spent 27 years moving from one Information Technology job to another. As it turned out, my beloved posse has continue to keep my dream alive, long after I forgot that I’d ever had it. My gratitude for you all is profound — and boundless.
As for you, Mr. Clemons, if you’re reading this, and you hear a knock at your door, it is I, Missed America. I’m home.