Ok, so Neal’s post (http://nowhere-to-go-but-up.blogspot.com) got me to thinking about those little things that happen that have made all the difference in my life. Not the biggies – being born to my mother, marrying my husband, having my kid – but the stuff that at the time doesn’t seem to matter that later proves to be huge. So, here’s my Top Ten list (which, because I’m a historian, will be placed in chronological rather than rank order.) I’m going to do it in two installments because this takes more thought and time than I have in one day.
10. The happy accident of getting Mrs. James as a 1st grade teacher. When I got to 1st grade, I was already reading well-advanced texts and didn’t really want to do anything else BUT read. She was willing to let me zip through whatever work we had to do in the other subjects and then go to the corner of the class where I was invited to read whatever I wanted from a corner she had stocked with the most wonderful books. Great Expectations (and a lot of other Dickens books). Jane Eyre. Animal Farm. The Red Pony. And some of the best of children’s books – E.B. White’s work, a book titled The Far-Distant Oxus. Elizabeth Enright’s books. Stuff like that. She and my mom collaborated on developing the booklist and then I was loosed upon these works like a starving child at an endless feast of words. I would have gone up the wall in a standard classroom (as became evident the next year, in Mrs. Williams’ exceptionally standardized care). But she bought me one golden year of pleasure and sustained the work of my mom in opening up my head to books. With those books came nameless hungerings for a world beyond my little town, education beyond the ordinary expectations of a poor little redneck girl.
9. Punching Jay Curtis in the nose in 5th grade. I was a painfully shy, nerdy marshmellow of a kid, bookish with thick glasses, buck-toothed, vulnerable, prone to tears while other children picked on me. Jay was a boy struggling with short-man’s disease from an early age. There were three of us in the cloakroom, me and Jay and Cindy. Cindy was the only child lower in the classroom social order than me, a girl who always smelled a little like old pee because she was poor, slept in her clothes for warmth, and had to share a bed with her bedwetting little brother. When he pushed her and made her cry, something inside me just gave way. I flew into him with both fists pounding. He sailed backward and skidded to a stop, a confused look on his face. And then he ran away and never told on me. I never told anyone else, but I think he realized that I could and so neither Cindy nor I had any further problems from him. I realized that if I could stick up for someone else, I probably could and should be sticking up for myself. And that sometimes a little violence can be efficacious.
8. Winning the “If I were President” essay contest in 6th grade. My public policy initiatives amounted to “I think that every worker needs to be given safety glasses” and “we need to raise the minimum wage because this will have good effects on both businesses and individuals.” Nothing earth-shattering, but sufficiently explicit to win. Unfortunately, as the principal awkwardly explained to me, I was not really supposed to have entered the contest in the first place because I would never really be President. I guess I just hadn’t understood that this was a competition intended for boys only – and since it was blind-juried, the local Woman’s Club had been placed in a very embarrassing position by my transgression. They had concluded that the only fair way to resolve the issue (without lawsuit?) was to give the $50 savings bond (the stated prize for the competition and my only incentive to enter) to the boy who was runner-up, “so he could save it for college.” I received a beautifully illustrated cookbook instead. He got to attend the awards ceremony. I did not. Although this boy and I were good friends throughout school, I always took a little bit of delight after that in trouncing him academically. (He’s now a high school teacher in our hometown. I’m a college professor in the same discipline. Neither one of us is President. I still am not a very good cook.)
7. Trying out for the 9th grade school musical. The shyness hadn’t gotten any better, really and I seemed to be stuck at permanently pudgy. My best friend wanted to try out and wouldn’t go without me for moral support. I had no intention of auditioning, but the choir teacher (Mrs. Irwin) wouldn’t let me stay in the audition room unless I also took a shot. Who knew I could sing – I mean, really sing? I got a small part which later turned into leads, which later turned into voice scholarships. Who knew?
6. Meeting Dodie. She was a year younger, a junior to my senior. She was funny, sexy in an uncomplicated way, and unafraid of life. I learned a lot from being around her – to give things a try if they looked like fun, that honesty and kindness are not mutually exclusive, and that women who like sex are not whores by definition. In an era before we all rocked the body-positive thing, Dodie totally got the whole celebration of womanhood. She was a fount of accurate information about birth control, STDs, sexual practices, and all the other realms of knowledge that our small-town upbringing had tried to close off from us. And because she had a car, she could take girls to the county seat to get health care through the only Planned Parenthood in a hundred miles. As the lynchpin of my high school group, she probably didn’t realize that she was a feminist role model for us all, but she was. She was the first person other than my mother to tell me that I was beautiful and it was only years later that I came to believe that she was right.