My column from the Albert Lea Tribune, October 24, 2016
Over the past few years when I speak at an author event, someone always asks me if I knew I wanted to become a writer when I was in grade school. I usually come up with an off-hand answer because I was never quite sure when the spark of creativity was born in my life. I knew it wasn’t during my elementary school years because I pretty much felt as if I wasn’t very smart or didn’t have much to offer.
It wasn’t until I listened to author Allen Eskens highlight his years in school that the lightbulb came on in my own brain. Listening to his story about his challenges in the school systems, I came to understand I wasn’t alone in my interest or noninterest in formal education in my youth. I’ve always felt guilty about the fact I didn’t live up to my potential, at least that is what my teachers and parents felt. Now I realize it wasn’t so much about my learning ability as the system of learning back in my youth. Finally I feel vindicated and relief knowing the way I learn and my interests were at the root of the problem. In my day one size fit all.
I love to sing. But I quit singing and didn’t go out for chorus in high school because I felt I wasn’t good enough. One year in grade school I would get a C or D in singing and another year I would get an A or B. I was told I had no potential when it came to song. No one bothered to tell me I could improve. And later on in my life I was told by a director I was not good enough for a small church group choir, so I even quit the larger group choir I had joined because I felt I didn’t measure up, even though that director was encouraging. I chose to believe the other one. My joy of singing was gone.
I have always loved painting and creating artwork. Again, I didn’t take art in high school because I was told in grade school I had no talent. And I believed it — after all, didn’t my teachers know best. To be fair, art and musical talent weren’t as valued as today, so to most people it was more important to excel in math and geography and writing and history and english. I excelled in none of them either. I was pretty much a C student in grade school, unless I liked something and then my grade would come up to an A or B. I pretty much felt as if I didn’t have potential, and I was told time and time again I lived in a dream world because I liked to day dream, and I was made to feel that was not appropriate.
I entered high school and I loved the social part of high school but wasn’t enamored with the subjects. I realize now after thinking about Allen’s talk that I was bored. I wasn’t interested in the subjects. Add to the fact I had one class where the teacher had everyone write down what they liked about someone or didn’t like and then put it in a box and each person got their notes. Maybe it made everyone else feel good but I wasn’t one of them, although most of the comments were positive, we always dwell on the negative.
It wasn’t until my junior year in high school that I signed up for a speech class. I was discouraged from taking it by others telling me I couldn’t cut it, but it saved my life. I found something I loved along with drama and creative writing in my English class. My grades turned around, and I felt better about the activities I enjoyed. I loved to write and thought about going to school for journalism, but because of my own insecurities I spent some time in college and then I quit and entered the job market.
I realize how much different my life might have been if I would have received encouragement and lived in a different time when the arts were valued. If I wouldn’t have let the outside voices override my inside voices.
I flitted around at different jobs in my adult life while raising my children with my husband, but it wasn’t until I entered a job as a secretary or office manager and ended up a computer technician that I felt perhaps I had a good brain. All of this happened because someone believed in me. When I was offered the secretarial job, I hadn’t worked in that area for 30 years, yet I was offered a job without applying for it. The person said he saw my potential on computers and knew I could re-learn what I had forgotten. After a few years I was trained to become a computer technician, and I loved it. It wasn’t anything that had been on my radar, but because someone believed in me I was given a chance and I found an unusual career for a woman my age.
And then my old friend Cherry re-entered my life and asked me what happened to my writing. She had fully expected I would be an author by now. She believed in me, and it was because of that belief I had enough courage to send my manuscript in and was offered a contract with a publishing company. Another old friend, Charlotte, entered my life a littler later and encouraged me to paint. And now I am painting.
Because someone believed in me it helped wipe out those voices I heard when I was in grade school. I have a brain, but it is wired differently and creativity is my muse. All of us are smart in different ways, and we need to let our children know whatever their learning ability is, if it is different from another’s, it is their life’s journey and it is valued.
I have a granddaughter who is taking cooking and interior design in seventh grade, both things she loves. I have a grandson that is writing a book, but recently someone must have discouraged him because he sent me a text saying he was not going to finish his book because it was childish and he needed to learn more before he could write the book. I have read what he wrote and he should not stop. He should be encouraged, not discouraged.
I might not be the best writer, the best painter, the best singer, but if it gives me joy to do those things I will do them to the best of my ability. Everyone is an artist and their canvas and talent is uniquely their own, whether it be painting, writing, math, geography or space exploration. If artists quit hearing their voices and only listen to the outside voices of the world today, we might have missed some great people.
I am going to keep encouraging my grandson to write if that is what he wants to do. But if he wants to try something else I will encourage that, too. We encourage our children to try different sports and laud them for it, but finally it is accepted to encourage the arts, too.
In my heart I knew I wanted to be a writer all my life, but I didn’t give myself permission to accept that part of myself because I didn’t want to labeled a dreamer. And now, call me a dreamer, that’s who I am and I am proud of it.
Be an encourager, not a discourager. You might be encouraging the next Nobel Peace Prize winner.