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The Five-Minute Conversation

It was the first kind word a high school teacher had ever said to me about any possible skill set I possessed. Granted, I didn't give them much to work with, but it stuck with me.

I wrote my ass off the summer between my Sophomore and Junior years of high school. It was my first summer school experience, and now that I look back on the situation, it was the beginning of my writing career. I had failed BOTH English and Algebra my Sophomore year--I was a rebel who refused to believe school had anything interesting or novel to offer me, so I made sure I was rarely in attendance. Failing Algebra? Stick me in a math class today, and I'd probably still fail, but English?!! I'm an English professor these days--and no, the irony is not lost on me.

Jimmy Fangman was my boyfriend that summer, and his mother Lois was always at the doctor for one perceived ailment or another. This time, her doc gave her massive quantities of Dexedrine. God only knows what he thought they'd do for a menopausal, slightly chunky, little white-haired lady, but once I discovered her secret cache, I became an individual I didn't recognize. I could suddenly focus, and I gave a shit. She never noticed the pills were gone.

I couldn't wait for the next assignment, paid attention in class, and even answered questions without any snarky sounding tone in my voice. I LOVED SCHOOL! Loved, loved, loved it! When I got home, I'd immediately sit at the desk on the lower level of the split level home we lived in in New Jersey, and write. I completed all my reading and writing every day without fail. It was my calling. I was suddenly interested in something I had previously considered an intrusion--learning.

The teacher in my English class, whose name has been lost beneath the sands of time, pulled me aside one day and told me I had a real future as a writer and that I should pursue writing as a career. It was the first kind word a high school teacher had ever said to me about any possible skill set I possessed. Granted, I didn't give them much to work with, but it stuck with me. I would never have done anything as crass as grin or say "thanks," but I never forgot his words and if I could, I'd write him a love note today and tell him thanks for seeing something beneath the hip-hugger jeans, the eyeliner, the blank stare, the cat-like mistrust I carried with me regularly. I earned an "A" in both Algebra and English that summer.

Today, I recognize that those pills were probably my own self-medication to try to get a handle on a serious case of something that didn't even yet have a name--ADD, but at the time I was simply a lonely kid with a big chip on my shoulder who didn't understand that there was a fascinating world hidden in words if only I could get out of my own way to let myself through the door.

Thirty-odd years on, I'm submitting my work for publication in four different genres, and I've been a teacher for some years now. I never took Dexedrine again after that misspent summer sitting at a desk, but that defining moment with my teacher, Mr. No-Name, never would have happened had I not finally been able to focus and to listen.

I hope that someday one of my quiet, self-doubting students will look back to a moment in my classroom in which she actually felt connected and appreciated and remember me, Professor What the hell was her name?, who changed her life by telling her she had a real gift and to never give it up, no matter what.

I suppose I could also thank Mrs. Fangman's doctor for making possible that magical epiphany, but I'm still not persuaded that he was doing her any favors, and I seem to have done just fine diving into my later writing life simply by hanging onto the memory of someone saying he believed in my possibilities before I even knew I had any. Thanks for that five minute conversation, Mr. I can't remember your name. You were a great teacher.


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