For about a week, I’ve been contemplating an inspiring post about things that amaze me. But here’s the thing, I have a full time day job, and I’m committed to finishing this latest draft of my novel sooner rather than later. I’M TIRED PEOPLE.
Especially today. My husband and I dogsat last night for my daughter’s two dogs. We love these rent-a-pet opportunities. Throw a stick, scratch a belly, and then wave goodbye.
Last night, her slightly neurotic boxer and fluffy mixed-breed slept over. Thor, the boxer, decided that 2:30 a.m. was a good time to slink over to my side of the bed and lick my hand. I was up Netflix-ing for the next four hours.
But writing this book is something I want to do, so instead of catching up on sleep, I brainstormed the rest of my outline.
All of this whining brings me to the topic of my post today. Sometimes writing things and flinging them out to the universe isn’t always gratifying. Sometimes we’re rejected by the very people who once accepted us and validated our writerly existence.
But I’m trusting all the legends out there, all the novelists who tell us persistence is the key. So I’m persisting. And yawning. Which is why today, you’re getting a previously unpublished essay instead of my amazingly useful post on wonderous things that amaze me.
This essay was my second submission to Chicken Soup for the Soul. It was rejected. The essay made my sisters cry which is one of my litmus tests. It did not make me cry. Maybe it will make you cry. Maybe not.
Maybe you’ll instantly know why my first submission to the Soup people was accepted and why this one was rejected. Maybe not. Probably not.
I don’t have the energy or desire to resubmit or rewrite this particular piece. I got it out of me and—to paraphrase a lovely novelist I interviewed this week—made it an artifact. This time that was enough.
It’s a true story. Names changed, etc.. I hope it speaks to you.
Remember to just keep “making stuff.” (Yes, that’s from Big Magic by our friend Liz, and yes, I resisted reading it because everyone’s reading it, and yes, now I have bent over every other page because it speaks to me…damn you, Liz!)
Here’s my rejected piece:
Had I known that sunny September day would set a course for the next 17 years of my life, I might have thought twice about attending the Parent Volunteer meeting. My brown-eyed girl was starting Kindergarten and I was determined to get involved. I left her two-year-old brother with a neighbor and dressed in my best mom uniform, khaki capris and sandals.
The gymnasium was set with folding chairs and long tables littered with sign-up sheets. There were paper cups filled with lemonade and rows of sparkly sugar cookies and grownups having conversations! I’d escaped the confines of stay-at-home-mom, venturing into the land of Moms Who Help. It was a vast land with its own politics and customs. Our comfortable community in a desirable school district had the unusual problem of fielding too many volunteers. Assignments filled quickly.
Our leader for the afternoon ended her welcome speech by reminding us that there were always areas in need of more help such as the Read-A-Book program. We had a diverse student body many of whose parents did not speak English in the home and did not have access to reading materials. Those volunteers selected would choose books and read aloud weekly to children in need of special attention.
It seemed like the perfect fit. We’d read to our kids from an early age and my daughter would see me helping her classmates. I put my name at the top of the list and selected a few other events as well. I would help stock the Book Fair and come in once a month for Art Parent, whatever that was. I also filled out a lottery form for Room Parent, the most competitive category. Those lucky folks that planned all the classroom parties were chosen in an annual drawing clouded with rumors of fixed entries and other shenanigans.
Throughout the next 17 years, I read to many of my children’s classmates and served as room parent more often than not. I chaperoned field trips to museums and zoos, spotted climbers on the knotted rope in P.E. classes, filled water balloons for orchestra camps, fed referees at wrestling tournaments, grilled bratwurst at football games and demonstrated sculpture to third graders using Hershey Kisses and toothpicks.
The assignment that resonated the most was the reading. It seemed such a simple thing. Each reading day, I’d choose a book from a cabinet in the volunteer room. I’d pull the pocket folder belonging to my student and record the book title. After reading, I returned the folder noting any comments the child made about the book or any requests they had for the following week.
We sat wherever we could find a spot. We’d plop down on big bean bag pillows in a carpeted hallway, a corner of the library, or a special sunny nook with no lockers off the office corridor. Most of the children spoke English but didn’t read much at home either because their parents didn’t have the time or didn’t speak English.
Each year, every session started out tentatively as I got to know my students. They’d ask whose mom I was and slowly, over weeks, they’d relax, revealing their personalities. Some demanded the same book each week. Some wanted me to scour the library to find a special title. Then there was Jake.
Jake was in my daughter’s fourth grade glass and according to other classroom parents, was likely to end up in juvenile detention before making it to high school. He was always in trouble. He swore. He was high energy. He received poor grades. He was troubled by most every definition and was assigned to read with me as his parents didn’t speak English at home.
The first day I called his name, he slapped a book off a classmate’s desk on his way out to join me in the hallway.
“Hi Jake,” I said.
“I hate reading.” He said.
“Good, you don’t have to read. You can just listen if you want.” I slid down the wall to the carpet wondering how I got so lucky to have him on my list.
“Maybe.” But he also sat down, three feet away from me as if he might bolt at any minute.
“I heard you like Goosebumps?”
“Whatever.” But he wasn’t punching anyone or trying to run away.
I opened the book and began to read. Occasionally, I’d sneak a peek at him. He had the spiky bangs in fashion with a lot of the boys. He had giant brown eyes and an 18-inch tail of hair down the middle of his back, the rest of his hair cut short to match his spiky bangs. The tail definitely stood out and I learned other students often teased him about it. The radical hairstyle contributed to his aura as the bad boy of the grade school set.
Our first meeting was deemed a success by his teacher. I could see a change as I called him each following week. He no longer acted out on his way to greet me. Instead, he practically ran and sat so close I could feel his warm skin and smell the baby shampoo his mom used on her special boy. He was always cheerful and seemed well-cared for. I didn’t understand the source of his behavior problems. I was just there to read.
One late spring day, we were finishing our last book of the year. I’d bought each of my students a book as a parting gift and I handed him a new Goosebumps paperback. He didn’t say much just twirled the long tail of hair. I took a risk and asked him about it.
“That must have taken a long time to grow, huh?”
“Yeah, my mom won’t let me cut it.” He didn’t let go of it and rubbed his other hand over the book cover.
“Really? How come?” I didn’t want to be nosey but I was intrigued.
“I was really sick as a baby and my mom told God if he let me live, she’d never cut my hair.”
I swallowed past the lump in my throat and finished reading. When I got to “The End” I closed the book and listened as the muffled sounds of a busy science lesson drifted through the closed classroom door. Other than that, our little alcove in the hallway was silent.
Then I heard Jake clear his throat, “Thanks for reading to me. Maybe I’ll get you next year.”
As my tears threatened to overflow, I risked possible rejection and hugged him. He hugged me right back.
My volunteer efforts on behalf of my two children and several school buildings have had splashier successes. In truth, I’m not even sure that my reading with Jake made any impact on his life other than those few hours we spent together in quiet enjoyment of a good book. What I am sure of is the valuable lessons Jake taught me.
Everyone you meet has a story and usually, you’ll never know what that story is. Secondly, any effort expended on behalf of another human being has the capacity to improve a life. In this case, that life was mine.