Monday, February 3, 2020

Short stories = career choice

It’s hard to believe I’ve been retired from teaching for so long.  Eighteen years.  Sheesh.  I turn 70 in another month.  Overall I feel good and I’m happy to tell you my book is coming along very well.  Second draft, much upgraded, should reach completion by the end of next week.  Then I print up a few copies to pass around to significant readers and publishers.  Hopefully somebody bites.  But more on that later. 

Focusing on little other than the book over the last month has got me thinking about how I got here.  Surely serving as an English teacher for most of my career works.  Encouraging kids to write got me to thinking about my own writing.  As you probably know I write some poetry and have had some of it published.  I’ve got a few essays under my publishing belt, too, and hope for some more based on my book. 

I’ve played with writing short stories, too, but that’s really just therapeutic.  When I read others’ stories, good ones, I realize character development is the thing, and my stories really focus on one event, which doesn’t allow much room for personal growth.  Maybe I’ll get there, but for me it’s mostly essays (blogs) and poetry.  Pretty sure.  

Still, I realize my awareness of literature from high school is what took me down the road at good old Wright State to become a teacher.  As I finished junior year at Carroll High School, I realized it was time to figure out what I thought my career choice might be.  Best I could figure, all the guys were planning on becoming engineers, so I guess me too.  Mechanical?  Electrical?  Civil?  I surely didn’t know.  I enjoyed physics senior year well enough and didn’t worry about my choice too much. 

But by the end of senior year, with my struggling with mathematics yet AGAIN, I began to question engineering. If I couldn’t handle math, how would engineering work? So I got to thinking about what really moved me?  What could I enjoy doing while earning a paycheck?  

Which, of course, brought Mr. Hemmert front and center.  He was my English teacher at Carroll for two of my four years.  One of my scariest moments of all time took place in his room.  As a stutterer, I always feared having to speak in front of the class.  Even answering questions.  And then it was my turn to go to the front of the class to read something of mine.  I was petrified.  But I walked up there, fretting intensely.  I turned to face the class and froze.  The class was silent, waiting to see what would happen.  Mr. Hemmert was encouraging, then said it would only be worse next time.  But he let me off the hook and I returned to my seat.  Don’t remember anybody asking me anything afterward, either.  Enough humiliation is enough.  

In the process of all that, I tried out for the varsity baseball team spring of junior year, the only baseball steam Carroll had at the time.  Mr. Hemmert was coach.  I worked as a catcher for a bit but was best in the outfield, where hopefully fewer balls came my way.  Confidence was not a byword in my vocabulary. 

I was cut.  Coach came up and said it was time for me to quit.  I asked him if I had to.  He said yes, and so I figured that was it for my high school baseball dream.  Didn’t even try out senior year.  I mean, why?  I didn’t go to the first pre-workout meeting, then was asked by Coach Hemmert in class the next day why I wasn’t there.  Seemed obvious to me and I told him so.  

True to his form, he encouraged me to come out again.  So I did.  And I made the team.  Just coached first base all spring, but I remember Mr. Hemmert telling me on route to an away game that some guys were just good to have around.  Meaning me.  I was moved.  I coached a few springs of baseball while teaching junior high, too. Good stuff. 

But why teach English?  Surely Mr. Hemmert’s influence, but it was more than that.  And then I got to thinking about two short stories assigned in high school that absolutely stopped me in my tracks. I have mentioned them to so many over the years as the reason I became an English teacher:  

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London and “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall” by Katherine Anne Porter.  Besides the Shakespeare works we did every year, I don’t think I could mention another short story we read, even over four years of English classes.  But those two?  Etched in my brain.  

Why?  Because of the pall of death cast over them both?  Probably.  And probably the intense living they appeared to be involved in just moments before their respective “light” was blown out.  Needless to say, I was moved.  

And so I became an English teacher.  I’m not a great reader, which hurts.  But I struggled through my college lit classes and learned in the process how to be a better writer, but truth was that skill would improve only as I matured.  I guess that’s how it’s supposed to be.  

So here and now I would like to thank Mr. Hemmert, again, for the inspiration to teach for a career and to write.  He did it for damn near fifty years at Carroll.  I’d like to thank him, too, for my love of baseball.  

By the way, I just picked up a used copy of The Collected Stories of Katherine Anne Porter and encountered the still-hurting Granny Weatherall again.  First time since high school.  Still powerful.  I’ll be reading it again, too.  

And Jack London?  Cindy & I have already established that the newest film version of Call of the Wild out in a couple weeks — with Harrison Ford as protagonist — is my birthday movie this year.  

It’s good to get in touch with one’s deepest roots.  :-) 

Today’s elder idea:   
“For the second time there was no sign.  Again no bridegroom and the priest in the house.  She could not remember any other sorrow because this grief wiped them all away.  Oh, no, there’s nothing more cruel than this — I’ll never forgive it.  She stretched herself with a deep breath and blew out the light.” 

      Katherine Anne Porter
from “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”