Getting Schooled

Posted: March 11th, 2012 | Author: | Filed under: College, Discoveries, Little Rhody, Writing | No Comments »

I have a shameful confession to make. I have a bit of an educational superiority complex.

It’s not like I’m some Ivy-Leaguer with any real reason to have this attitude. But when I recently signed up for a writing class in San Francisco, I was a bit leery about, well, about the level that the other writers would be performing at. (See? Total snob. Terrible!)

I was also uncertain about the teacher. She had great reviews online. Students seemed to adore her. But she’d spent the lion’s share of her career at a community college, and teaching adult-ed classes at random adult-ed-class places. She’d had some books published—maybe even won an award or two—but nothing I’d ever heard of.

Worst case scenario, the class could be a waste of time. (And money.) But it might at least focus my writerly energies a bit.

Writing is so solitary and personal. And if you don’t want to do it, you just don’t. But I’d been feeling like I could use a personal trainer for my writing. You know, some tough-love coach to put me on the machines that I don’t like to go on, and force me to do 20 more reps than I’d ever do on my own. Painful in the moment, but beneficial long-term.

This blog has become like a comfortable elliptical machine that I spend thirty minutes on, wipe my brow, then go crack a beer. I need someone to force me over to the kettle bells, or make me do a shit-load of squats. And if I ever hope to write a book, I need to be nudged out into the cold for a long, long run.

I was also hopeful that at least one or two of the other students might be good—at writing, of course, but also at giving smart feedback on other people’s work. A class I took in ninth grade seems to have set the standard in my mind for the value of sharing work aloud, and the joy and pain of group critiques. I’ve been wanting to form a writer’s group, and a class seems like a good setting to suss out others to join me.

On the first day of class I parked my car at 2:28. And as I grabbed my bag and marveled at my timeliness I was suddenly struck by the thought that 2:30 was an odd time to start a class. 2:00 would’ve made more sense. Moments later as I walked into the loft where our class meets, it was immediately apparent that I was late. I’d missed the first half-hour, the ever-critical why-I’m-here and what-kind-of-writing-experience-I-have introductions. I’d have to work overtime at our 10-minute tea breaks, casually interrogating everyone and sizing ‘em up.

Last week—our second time meeting—we did an in-class exercise. When it was time to share what we’d written, I didn’t love what I had, but figured it would cut the mustard. Someone volunteered to read first. And can I just say, they were good. Very good. As in, I looked at my laptop screen meekly and wondered if I’d tackled the assignment correctly. Another person read and I quietly closed the lid on my computer. I could just volunteer to read another time…

Mid-way through Reader #3, my superiority complex left the building. I don’t anticipate it will be coming back.

As for the teacher, she invited us to a women’s writing conference at her community college. An old friend of mine calls junior college “high school with ashtrays.” I love that. It reflects, once again, my shameful snobbery about schools.

Anyway, I went to the event on Saturday. And it rocked. Two impressive and super-cool authors read. (And I’m totally making my book club read this book, written by one of them.) Some students got awards for their writing. And there was an open mic on the theme of “roots” that I participated in at the end of the program. Because my teacher encouraged me to. Which I thank her for.

I got some really nice feedback—both during my reading, and from folks coming up to me afterwards. A young Asian man who I think was semi-retarded even tried to pick me up.

So I’m sharing here what I read. It’s something I wrote last February while visiting my dad in Rhode Island. I’ve changed it at bit since I originally posted it.

Here’s to me and my new attitude about school. I’m polishing up an apple to bring to my teacher this week, and I’m planning to give those other student-writers a run for their money.

Wish me luck.


The Bristol Two-Step

We were in the library, so I decided to let out a blood-curdling scream.

I’d been chatting with the librarian. There are two gray-haired gals who still serve there—at my hometown bibliotheque—since back when I was a kid. I mentioned that to one of them once, thinking we might have a nice moment. Instead she looked at me like she’d sucked a lemon.

But yesterday I took a chance and whispered to Kate as we were checking out books, “The woman who’s helping us was the librarian when I was a girl.” And, thankfully, she looked up and smiled.

Then we did the who-are-you? Bristol Two-Step. Which is to say, she asked me what my name was and who my parents are. And when I told her she said, “Oh sure” then listed off the names of all the streets we ever lived on in town. “Now your mom was up on Hope Street for a long time, then she moved to Beach Road, right?”

“Your mother,” she said, hunched over the desk leaning towards me. “Her and my friend Dottie DeRosa? Those two were out in their gardens at the very first signs of spring. We’d say the ground is still frozen, but there’s Vicki out there gardening.”

I admit my awareness of my daughters’ whereabouts had faltered a bit. I was drawn in by the kindly librarian. I wanted to hear another little story about my mom. I devour whatever tidbits of her life anyone shares with me. But before I could coax more out of her, I looked up to see Paige step into the empty elevator, and the door start to close.

PAAAAAAAAAAAIGE!” I bellowed, as I did a sideways-flying Superman-type lunge for the door. I wedged my hand in without a second to spare. Blessedly the door lurched back open. Paige was standing inside smiling, as I skidded into her like home base.

After that wake-the-dead Mama shriek, those librarians should have no trouble remembering me the next time I drop in.

At dinner last night, at my favorite chicken parm place, a couple walked in and sat at the table next to us. Some sort of comment on Paige’s ability to pack away the pasta ensued. Then my father held out his hand towards the man, but squinted by way of saying he didn’t remember his name.

Cue the Bristol Two-Step.

“Oh yes,” my father said, hearing the guy owns the photo shop in town. “You live on Court Street! My cousin Jimmy Rennetti used to own that house.”

There have to be a million annoying things about the lack of anonymity that comes with living in a small town. But this absurd form of interconnectedness is so extreme–is such a weird form of sport–it’s brilliantly entertaining. At least for someone who only experiences it for a week or two every year. And despite the fact that I’ve been away so long, I love that I still have enough hometown equity to play a fair game myself.

At the end of our meal a little girl wandered over to say hi to Kate, her mom trailing behind her. Kate, demonically thrilled to be in possession of a piece of chocolate cake, was disinterested in the other child’s attention. So I tried to jump-start their conversation.

“Are you in kindergarten, honey? Where do you go to school?”

When she responded “Rockwell”—my own elementary school alma mater—I nearly squealed with glee.

Though really, of course she goes there. It’s a small town—not many schools. Not much has changed since I was a kid.

But as someone whose grown accustomed to the sprawling anonymity of the Bay Area—of Oakland, for God’s sake—learning that I had something in common with this little stranger felt like such a sweet cozy coincidence.

Sometimes when I’m back in Rhode Island I somehow forget I’m there, then I find myself getting excited to see someone wearing a RISD sweatshirt. Or I’ll be driving along, then perk up at the sight of an Ocean State license plate.

Proof that this place that I think of as home is somewhere I’m not used to spending much time any more. Somewhere along the line I got re-programmed as a Californian, so my default mental setting is that any Rhode-Islandisms I ever come across must be far-flung artifacts that’ve managed to make their way out West. Like me.

At any rate, Kate’s would-be restaurant friend didn’t find my enthusiasm about Rockwell School far-fetched. “Did you have Miss Sousa too?” she asked, wide-eyed.

Aw, honey. The thing is, I probably did have a Miss Sousa, but a very different one than yours.

There’s a strong tug of temptation to run around and see a ton of people when I’m Back East. To schedule non-stop activities, and of course hit up all my favorite places to eat.

But on this visit I’m just trying to melt into the scenery. Just enjoy it at a normal intake dosage—not feel compelled to have to soak it all up so frantically. So aside from a grandparent-sponsored jaunt to the toy store, and dinner out for Dad’s birthday, the only real plans we have are to go to story-time at the library.

In fact, we arranged to meet Kate’s new friend from the restaurant there. Which is great since I never got a chance to ask her what street she lives on, or who her teachers were at preschool.

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