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.

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