Adventures in Column Writing
Posted December 17, 2012on:
You never know where your writing is going to take you. In July, Mark Schultz, an editor at The Chapel Hill News reached out to me after reading a Facebook post about my feelings on the 15th anniversary of my mother’s death. He knew me from some previous op-eds that I wrote. He asked to meet with me to discuss my possible interest in doing a trial run as one of the monthly columnists for the ‘My View’ section. I couldn’t believe my eyes! I had harbored a secret desire to write columns for years.
Of course, an inner critic immediately began shouting at me not to even consider this new endeavor as I knew little about writing a column. It didn’t want me to appear foolish. I dutifully listened to its complaints, fears and concerns and then assigned it a new job– to become a docent in training for the all of the 19 Smithsonian museums—a job that can use a critic with a great memory and perfectionistic tendencies. After I disposed of that critic I set up an appointment with Mark. We met, in September, and he talked about the nature of the column, the current writers who wrote for it (all fascinating folks), and that he was looking for writers with unique points of view that could write about local and national topics in a fresh way. I said yes to the trial run. If I didn’t like the work, or he didn’t like my writing, no permanent damage would result and I’d have at least gotten a chance to work outside my comfort zone. I got to work first by reading the newspaper’s columnists, then I read some syndicated columnists and proceeded to write many bad drafts. The critic was right, I didn’t know much about column writing and I often worried about whether I would look foolish. But, I just kept writing through these fears; they weren’t immobilizing. I finally hit on a topic that felt deeply personal and that I hoped would touch other people. My first column appeared yesterday and I can’t wait to write more.
The ‘Queen’ grows up
In third grade, kids dubbed me “queen of the class.” I took my intelligence for granted. I could skip school for weeks and still produce 100s.
By the end of elementary school, however, school became synonymous with bullies and boredom. I spent a lot of time cutting classes and instead reading in the public library across the street from my house.
In sixth grade I was just three days shy of being held back due to truancy. Arrogant and undisciplined aptly described me at 16. Everything caught up with me one day when my high school guidance counselor pronounced, “Michele has to leave. She’s expelled.”
The shock on my mother’s face, sitting next to me, revealed she didn’t know how bad things had gotten at school. And, neither did I. I knew I wasn’t the counselor’s favorite, but I never saw this coming.
My mother was always my biggest champion. One of my favorite memories is of her leaning out our third-floor window waving and shouting down to neighbors and passersby about my third-grade spelling commendations. That day, in the office, her gaze pierced me with an unstated question: How could her daughter, a straight A student, with a 12th grade reading score since the fifth grade, now be asked to leave the prestigious Bronx High School of Science?
As an accomplished professor now, no one would ever guess my embarrassing high school failure. Everyone tends to think successful people have always been that way. I was reminded of this tendency when listening to Professor Sir John Gurdon, the recent Nobel Prize winner for Medicine, share that his high school teacher thought science was being “wasted on him.” His teacher thought he showed no talent for science and discouraged him from pursuing it.
When mentoring students who are having trouble, I “out” myself about having to do a year over. It’s important for them to know that experts (as in the case of Professor Sir John Gurdon’s high school teacher) can be wrong and that your past doesn’t have to determine your future (as in my case). Sometimes the bumps in the road you face are also wake-up calls.
I arrived at high school, a smart kid with lots of other smart kids. Poor study skills and seven demanding classes later, by sophomore year, I struggled. The biggest challenge wasn’t the work but culture shock! Overnight my primarily black and Latino world of shared cultural norms changed. I hadn’t been a minority in public school since second grade when I lived in New Jersey.
Attending a predominantly white high school meant adjusting to different kinds of students. This alone would have been manageable. The obstacle was that race operated in ways I’d never seen before. How do you deal with a white physics teacher that openly said black students weren’t capable of learning physics? Or that some white and Asian students took their frustration out on some black students because they were routinely beat up, on the way to the subway, by kids from the male (and majority black) vocational neighborhood high school next door? I didn’t have the emotional language to describe the complexity of how racial identity mattered in big and small ways.
By the end of junior year my mother, struggling with depression, was slowly starving and drinking herself to death. I called 911 and had her hospitalized. I was left alone to take care of my sister and developmentally disabled brother for the summer. Not fun. But, by the beginning of my senior year, I was prepared to start anew, so I felt completely blindsided by my guidance counselor’s decision.
Riding the subway with my mother after that difficult conversation, my life options flashed before me. I briefly considered dropping out – how would I ever face my friends who would graduate on time? If I was too embarrassed, to finish school, though, I saw myself ending up bitter, working full time as a department store cashier, helping wealthy women choose clothing to wear on cruise ships. In that scenario, I would essentially remain at my current part time job at Lord and Taylor’s – ad infinitum. It didn’t matter that my mom’s illness and alcoholism contributed to my truancy. It dawned on me then that “being smart” wasn’t good enough. I had to finish somewhere. Smart, poor black girls, who mess up, rarely get a second chance.
Bullies, boredom, prejudiced counselors and family illness aside, I was the one on the spot. I hung on to the one useful thing from that awful meeting – a suggestion that I attend a new magnet school, not as prestigious as the one I was leaving, but 10 times better than my neighborhood school.
Ultimately, successful people recognize potent opportunities and develop qualities of resiliency and tenacity. I did a year over, married my wits to discipline, humbly grew a bigger vision, regained my mother’s confidence, earned my high school diploma and then didn’t stop until I earned a PhD.
(column appeared on Sunday, December 16: http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2012/12/15/74203/the-queen-grows-up.html)