The Making of A Writer — The Early Years
I was late learning to read because I didn’t start school until I was seven. It had something to do with my birthday falling within the parameters of the educational system back in the late fifties (1950s, of course) in the very southern state of Alabama — rural. I was born at home – a two-room affair beside a cotton field in Crawford’s Cove near Springville in St. Clair County, one of many such counties tucked among exquisitely gorgeous hills and mountains with long, wide valleys and breathtaking views. But in that time period, our state was known for singers more than writers, and radios more than books.
My earliest memory of a book came when we lived on Warrick’s dairy farm, also near Springville, but in a more southerly direction from Crawford’s Cove. I tend to think I was six at the time and pre-dated my reading capability. A beautiful, glossy children’s book arrived at our house from mama’s brother and sister-in-law, Marrell and Beverly Duncan. I always imagined them living in exotic places because they were a military family. (See uncle’s picture in uniform under “Soldiers”). I suppose the colorful pictures hooked me. This was also pre-television in our family.
I got hooked on words by the time I was in the third grade. We had moved in a southerly direction once more. This time to Trussville. That’s my first memory of writing short stories and poems. I guess it’s because I practically lived in a world of my own imagination and I was already memorizing poetry, and passages from the King James Bible. The words sang to me.
My short stories were devoured by my classmates and my poems were shanghaied by the principal and tacked up on the main bulletin board. This is the first time something personal to me personally had ever been noticed by anyone outside the family. There was nothing outstanding about the way I looked. I was from a very poor family, and was now in a school whose students, on the whole, were from upper echelon families. To say I was surprised and thrilled by the attention is putting it mildly, for I was very shy around anyone who was not in my own social bracket, and, in this school, that was very few. Not only was I doing something that fulfilled a driving desire deep inside, other people actually enjoyed and appreciated the end product. This was a total and unexpected revelation. In other words, I was warped for life.
I don’t remember excelling in any way, form, or fashion after that, and came to no one’s attention until I did my rendition of the poem, The Pied Piper of Hamlin, for a few friends. I had memorized the entire nine pages and, as an extra bonus, threw in my limited acting abilities. I became quite popular for a little while as a guest at giggly-girl pajama parties. At least I held the attention of these girls through the whole nine pages. I knew by the way their eyes got big and they hardly moved for the next half hour or more. Go figure.
My next memory came, of all places, in 9th or 10th grade history class. I can’t recall the teacher’s name, but I’ve never forgotten his eyes. They were alive and could pin you like a bug on a board at a science fair. So was his teaching alive in a laid-back way, usually sitting on a corner of his desk swinging a leg. He also had a way of evoking some kind of half-way intelligent response from usually bored teenagers. The reason I remember this is because we were assigned a project on the particular subject we were studying — World War I — and I was literally terrified. That’s because I didn’t have an artistic bone in my body and everybody else was busily discussing poster boards and elaborate visual aids. And my rural farming family certainly were no shelter in the time of this artistic storm.
So, I played the only face cards in my very limited hand — my imagination and writing down what it produced. I had very little faith in this gambit. This was a PROJECT. Projects require poster boards and maps and drawing and layout and design — or some visual wizardry like building a diorama out of Rice Krispies and glue. But even though getting near a poster board made me break out in hives, I got Dad to buy me one. Then I wrote letters as a young girl to a father who goes off to war in this time period. I wrote to this imaginary father, not only about little homey affairs, but how the war affected our family as a small pixel in the larger picture of our nation. I would ask about him, of course, and added how much we all loved and missed him, just as any loving daughter would to a good and loving father.
So I had to study hard to understand the people and events — not from a soldier’s point of view — but from a young girl’s perspective while living in and through this historic period. I glued or stapled these letters, along with some appropriate visuals, to the poster board and turned it in, with no hope whatsoever of surviving the grade curve. I’ll never forget the response of that teacher with the “alive eyes” and the way he looked at me in a new way. I don’t recall what grade I got on the project, but I passed the class well enough. And I was called on to answer questions a lot more. There’s always some fly in the ointment I suppose because I’m not good at making intelligent verbal responses. I get brain freeze. Writing thaws it out.
It wasn’t long after this that I was approached by Coach Dyer, also a history teacher. I don’t know how good a history teacher he was, but he must have made a great coach. He pitched me the idea of entering the annual Civitan Speech and Essay Contest, which I’d never heard of. The idea floored me. I made every excuse I could think of why I couldn’t possibly do it. I wasn’t particularly brilliant. I wasn’t even that good a student. I blended in with the background. Everybody and his dog were smarter and more outstanding than me. But the main problem, which I couldn’t even understand much less verbalize at the time, was that I had absolutely no confidence in myself. I lived among people who equated poverty, and its lack of resources, with lack of intelligence. So who was I to say them nay.
But, he talked me into it by telling me he would be my backer, my coach. He would lead me through all that was required to throw my name into the hat and explain all the rules and regulations. More than that — he became an entire cheer-leading squad all in one person for one very backward and intimidated young girl. You must understand that I was going up against the best and the brightest of the children of monied, highly educated people. A place, I thought, where I had no right to be. That was more than reinforced by the snob bullies who ruled each classroom.
The subject of the essay/speech, of course, was citizenship, since it was sponsored by the Civitan Club. I checked out books on citizenship. I read about citizenship. I dreamed citizenship. I wrote several rough drafts, which Coach went over, suggesting I pull thoughts together here, tighten up there, fill in somewhere else — until finally he smiled and said, “This is it.”
When the time came, I took my “this is it” into a large room with a line of people looking confident and among peers. The student body president, a smiling, pleasant, good-looking youth as out of my league as a prince to a pauper could be, sat at the head table with some judges. But he was not one of the snob-bullies. Though he didn’t know me, he would smile at me sometimes in the hallway like a human to a human and not like a prince bestowing largesse on the multitudes, as some of the other popular royalty did — or not. I think it was him smiling encouragingly to me when they called my name that helped me get up out of my seat and walk to the podium.
I don’t know how I got through my speech. I just did it as I had done in front of the mirror at home, with appropriate facial expressions and hand gestures, like I did when reciting poetry. All I knew was such relief when I finished that I was almost faint. I sat down again without looking at anyone until someone jabbed me and indicated that the student body president was making not-so-subtle monkey motions at me, and the judges looked excited. I literally looked behind me to see if there was someone there they were jumpy about. Nope. It was me. I won. I was so stunned I could not speak when people came clapping me on the back and glad-handing me. My name, my picture accepting the award, and my speech in its entirety, was published in the newspaper. I felt pretty good till one of the blonde lovelies in a class sneered and said, “How in the world did YOU manage that?”
Well, I managed to win throughout subsequent area contests and tied for third place in the Alabama/Florida finals. A judge told me afterward I would have won hands-down but for one thing — I froze for one endless and horrifying moment. I never again made it to the finals, but I won all the following years of high school.
The high point during these years was that, as a sixteen-year-old writing contest winner, I was supposed to go to the state capital in Montgomery where I was to be presented to the governor, George Wallace, who was finishing his last term in office. Instead, I was a guest of honor at the governor’s mansion at a tea given by Governor-elect Lurleen Wallace. I was as uncomfortable as a fish out of water and tried to hide in my own skin in a corner of a sofa. I didn’t have the appropriate toilette for a high school soiree, much less a tea at the governor’s mansion. And I was entirely alone — no family, no friends, no one I knew, and not even another teenager that I recall. The Civitan group were men, and if some of their wives were there, I didn’t know them and they didn’t know me.
But the moment when Governor-Elect Mrs. Wallace made her entrance at the top of the curving staircase is a wonderful snapshot memory. She was elegant and graceful, and — dressed in a sweeping gown — floated down the stairs; the object of every woman’s admiration and envy. The moment her dainty foot touched the floor, she was met by a gaggle of well-turned-out tea ladies.
While everyone’s attention was elsewhere, I decided to brave the tea-table with its barely identifiable but colorful finger foods. As I picked delicately over the selection, I felt a gentle hand on my back. I turned to find the oh-so-elegant Mrs. Wallace smiling at me, welcoming me, and congratulating me on my speech and writing. I was utterly speechless. As she placed her hand on mine and led me about the room, introducing me as the state of Alabama’s most promising young new writer, I thought to myself, I’ll never experience anything like this again. And I never have.