Sunday, May 25, 2014

I know who I am (Part 2)

To say that my father's death when I was eight years old had an impact on my life would be an understatement. It was in that exact moment that the forward momentum in my life began to make a slow, steady turn in a different direction.

I was in the third grade when he died. In the fourth grade, Mrs. Walton told me that I could be a writer, and, as I noted in my previous post, I believed her. In the fifth grade, two things happened. First, my sister won a pony in a contest. She'd been entering the same tell-us-in-fifty-words-or-less-why-you-want-a-pony contest for years, my dad encouraging her to do so, promising her that someday he would get her a horse. After he died, her fifty words were heart wrenching. She won, and our lives became centered around a little dappled Shetland pony mare named Silver.

The second thing that happened that year was that I was I.Q. tested and found to be gifted. In the early 1960's, all fifth graders in California were I.Q. tested so that they could be "appropriately placed" in the academic programs that would best serve them in public school. (Don't get me started on tracking; that is a subject for another day.) I can't tell you what my I.Q. was because my mother wouldn't tell me. I do know that the school psychologist called her to give her this information and to let her know that I would be offered the opportunity to attend a special program for gifted children in the sixth grade. I would be bussed, along with four of my gifted peers, to another school every day to attend a class made up solely of gifted children.

So there I was every day that remained of the fifth grade, hanging out with my mutually smart friends, Cathy Dodd and Melinda Lively and Steve McCutcheon, planning for the next year, speculating on all the fun we would have, reveling in our newfound pride as smart kids, considering what our futures would bring. Cathy was my best friend and lived a block away. Her dad was a professor at UCLA, and way off in the distance I could see us attending college together there.

Oh—something else happened when I was in the fifth grade, or rather right after school ended for the summer. We moved. Mom said it was too expensive to pay the stable rental on Silver, so we moved a few miles away, from Lakewood to Cypress, to a house zoned for horses with a barn and a corral right there in the back yard. Heaven. For my sister, anyway.

The new elementary school had no program for gifted children. So that little part of my identity was no longer important or significant. I made new friends. Horsie friends. Turns out my sister's pony was pregnant, so we soon had another pony, then a horse, then the pony was given to me and I spent my time after school not doing homework but riding, cleaning, brushing, feeding, watering and preparing for the many horseshows I would enter.

I won a lot of trophies. And I'm proud to say that by the time I was sixteen I could train a horse "from the ground up," as they say in the horse world. But by then we were living in a new place because my mother had married my wicked step-father, and I was a clinically depressed, suicidal teen trying to navigate through deep emotional pain.

I didn't get good grades any more. I hadn't done homework since the seventh grade. No teacher ever told me I had the potential to do something with my life.

I did manage to finish high school. And then I got married, at age seventeen, for lack of any better options. And also because, in my senior year, I came home from school one day to find a Volkswagon "bug" in the driveway, the keys to which my mother handed over, telling me, "Let's face it, you're not going to college, so I took the money out of your savings account (which were funds from a death benefit paid out after Dad died) and bought you a car. You can stop borrowing mine now."

I still had a goal: I would train horses and write. I did begin writing. One of my first published pieces appeared in a horse magazine. But I became pregnant at eighteen, had my daughter on my nineteenth birthday, and in the years that followed, we adopted several children and eventually came to the realization that we could either feed our kids or feed our horses, so the horses had to go (all except my beloved pony, Silver, who lived to be twenty-three and was the first horse my daughter ever rode).

This story has a happy ending, it really does. When my marriage ended in divorce, I finally went to college. The snooty lady in the admissions office at UC Riverside looked at my high school transcript and explained that "for some people" community college is the best option, and so I went to Chaffey for two years, earned straight A's, applied to UCR again, was admitted with a full scholarship and graduated cum laude two years later (this, while raising four children as a single parent). In my senior year, one of my English papers was accepted into Ideas of Order, the prestigious "journal of letters" for UCR's English department.

Before I'd ever begun college, though, I'd been freelance writing for a decade, and I'd had a book published by a national publishing house, so really, writing was my first career. I began teaching after college so that I'd be able to support my kids, since I never received a dime in child support from my husband. Oh, and while I taught high school full time and continued to raise my own rowdy teens, I entered a graduate program, earning a master's degree in literature.

Yeah, I rock. (Little pat on the back there.)

Of course, I still had a colleague approach me one day as I stood in a processional line with nineteen other teachers, proudly wearing my cap and gown in UCR blue and gold colors, about to walk out onto the football field with our graduating students. She said, "Kay, you're wearing the wrong colors."
"No...." was my confused response.
"Yes, you are. Those aren't Cal State colors." (Only other academics, I think, will appreciate the bias in the distinction here. At least I hope so.)
"I'm a UC grad," I told her.
"What? No you're not!"

Really? Upon what did she base her judgment? That same old far-too-pensive expression? My tendency, still, to wear boots and cowboy shirts and drop "ain't" into a conversation just to shock my fellow academics? Here was Miss Madden all over again.

I have continued to encounter other Miss Maddens in my life, a few in particular in very recent days because I chose to teach Honors level classes this year, after twenty-four years of saying "Give me the sweathogs!" because those were the kids I could relate to. Some... people with whom I teach feel I am not qualified to teach in the Honors program. Things have been said, intimations have been made.

But I'm no longer the quiet little girl who sadly returned her green dot book to the shelf. So beware, Miss Maddens of the world. Stop trying to bring down my success at the end of the rainbow with your self-righteous superiority. That ain't gonna fly anymore. Because I know who I am. See?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I Know Who I Am (Part I)

Recently I mentioned something on Facebook that celebrated my role as high school English teacher. Eighty of my friends and acquaintances 'liked' it. A few days later, I posted a reminder about an event I would be attending in my role as writer.  Eleven people liked it. A day or so later, I posted an update on the success of that event. Seventeen people liked it.

I want to say I've gotten used to this, the discrepancy between how I see myself (writer) and how others see me (teacher), but the truth is, it takes me up short every time. I've been thinking about it a lot (or, more precisely, while mowing and edging the front lawn today, then weeding until it was too hot to continue). So I hope, dear reader, you will indulge me as I ruminate publicly about it in the next few blog posts. And I hope you will forgive me if, as I knead down to the deep tissue of this subject, a tiny bit of discomfort is experienced. I am not trying to call anyone out. I'm just trying to, well, be true to the above posted motto regarding "being simply true."

Because I do understand the dynamic of it. Since teaching is my career choice (oh, if you only knew how I came to choose it!), my identity, to most folks, is that of teacher. In fact, most of the teachers and educational staff I work with now have no idea that, in a past life, I was an established professional writer—before I became a teacher. My first book—published by a national publishing company and a bestseller for that company, netting me thousands of dollars in royalties—was written (dare I say it?) before I'd even attended college.

Since most folks (not all) see me as a teacher, this writing gig creates a tiny bit of cognitive dissonance because it doesn't ring true with how they perceive me. The Kay Murphy they know is the far-too-casual, far-too-sarcastic, somewhat cynical, always-resistant-to-change teacher who never contributes to any conversation in English department meetings. For some of them, this idea that I have published a few books is somewhat of a sideline hobby, a sweet notion I had about my dogs or my beloved great-grandmum that I decided to 'get published.' Of course, this is hardly the true picture. But how do I disabuse them of this mythology? After all, I've been misread, misidentified and misinterpreted all my life, and when I reflect upon it, I'm downright amazed at some of the things people have said to me.

The first in this long, tragic series of you-don't-belong-here episodes occurred with our elementary school librarian, Miss Madden. (I could be remembering her name wrong; after all, it's been fifty years or so. But I'm pretty sure it's Miss Madden.) In those blissful, post-WWII days after Johnny had marched home from the war and before anyone began to pay attention to the Civil Rights Movement or the USA's involvement with the politics of a small country called Vietnam, grown-ups were putting a renewed emphasis on the education of their children. Several innovative approaches to education had arisen, and teachers were beginning to implement such tools as standardized testing, I.Q. testing and tracking.

So there I was one day in the library of Grover Cleveland Elementary School along with all my peers in Mrs. Walton's fourth grade class. We went to the library regularly as a class so that we each had the opportunity to check out whatever books we wanted to read on our own. Well, that was the basic idea, anyway. And that suited me just fine. Libraries were magic castles packed with treasure, as far as I was concerned. I loved to lose myself in reading a good story. But in those days, we didn't have a Barnes & Noble at the local shopping center. Mom and Dad had a big bookcase in their bedroom which contained: A set of Encyclopedia Britannica (good job, Mom & Dad!), some Reader's Digest "condensed" books, and my father's law books. (No, he wasn't an attorney. He was a cop, then a night watchman, and he hacked his way through law school working the graveyard shift so he could attend law classes during the day. Then he contracted a terminal illness and died.) We never had money to buy books. The fact that libraries let you borrow them for free still thrills me.

Back in those days, one of those new-fangled teaching methods involved identifying the ability level of students and teaching to that level. To guide and direct us in our reading, our helpful librarian had labeled all the books in our requisite section with colored dots. (For some of you, this will begin to sound familiar. In fact, a color-coded system is still used in today's Accelerated Reader program.) Red dots indicated an easy-to-read book. Blue dots meant the reading level would be a bit higher. More difficult reads with advanced vocabulary were designated with a green dot.

By the fourth grade, I was proud of my ability to read and spell, and as I said, I loved getting lost in a book, so I looked for those that were longer, and I had no trouble reading them; I'd been dipping into our Reader's Digest Condensed Books at home for lack of anything better to read.

On the day in question, I advanced to the check-out counter, green dot book in hand. I wish to heavens I could remember what it was I had. No chance of that now. I never did get to read it. The librarian made me return it to the shelf with the terse, "That's a green dot book. It's above your level. Pick something else."

Wait. What? Did a librarian tell me I wasn't capable of reading green dot books? Why? The only interactions I ever had with Miss Madden in the past had involved bringing a book to the counter and presenting the check-out card. Why did she think I couldn't read this one? Upon what did she base her judgment? My slack-jawed, already-far-too-pensive expression? My clothing? My perpetually snotty nose? My scuffed up saddle shoes? What?

I never learned. Burning with humiliation (especially as I passed some of my peers who were heading for the check-out counter, their own green dot selections in hand) I returned my treasure and chose a blue dot book of lesser value, though I never believed Miss Madden's mystical assessment of my reading level.

Later that same year, Mrs. Walton would tell me, after reading a short story I wrote, "You could be a writer," and I would believe her, choosing, at age nine, my future career.