Thursday, November 14, 2013


My senior year of high school I was too sick to take AP English. I was, instead, enrolled in one of the few non-honors courses I ever took, outside of math and science. In addition to impressing whichever colleges and universities were willing to dangle a scholarship offer in front of me, I enjoyed the company of other intelligent, motivated people. Though I enjoyed being academically challenged, honors courses had a secondary function. They insulated me from cruel remarks and bullying behavior.

Outside of that bubble, I was a target for cruelty and pettiness, even though I could have physically retaliated to great effect. I guess I just didn't have any heart for the fighting. In time, I escaped, enrolling in college. Within the first quarter, the same punks who tormented me in public school had dropped out or gone elsewhere. In those days, I didn't have enough life experience to recognize the difference between the youthful appeal of roguish behavior which eventually gives way to the pathetic behavior of losers in training.
The teacher was a quirky, sarcastic transplant from elsewhere. He had no Southern drawl or courtly demeanor. He spoke his mind without needing to soften the blow. In addition, he was an extremely observant Jew, making him ever more the outsider. One day in September he was conspicuously absent, but arrived the next day to provide each of us with a piece of candy. High Holy Days were always celebrated in this way, should they fall during the week.

Though I had been raised in the Christian tradition, I had never been taught to take off work or school for a religious holiday. The closest experience I had observed in my own life was related and yet very different. Certain Christian faiths and denominations refuse to work on the Sabbath. It's the same reason the fast food restaurant Chick-fil-A isn't open on Sundays. Until then, I'd read a little about Jewish culture and religion, but almost always only in the abstract. Birmingham had a few synagogues, but Christian was the predominant religious identification. I knew of two and only two Jewish families that I counted among my classmates and neighbors.

Though a demanding instructor, he saw me as a contemporary, rather than a student. I appreciated his attitude and wanted to please him. He saw no distinction between regular and advanced classes, which was highly unusual. For the first time in my life, I had to struggle to make superlative grades in English. Along with history, I could usually sleepwalk through both subjects. The prior year, I'd taken my AP exam for American History on a day where I was too depressed to eat and had barely slept, but had still managed to make a 4 out of 5.

Though I had started writing doggerel in childhood, I never seriously committed to learn the craft. I had raw skill but it was unfocused. Taking a high school creative writing class began the process. Following my first efforts, when it came time for college, I split my English minor down the middle, taking half literature courses and half creative writing classes. Before then, I had always written prose. A professor whose forte was poetry inspired me to try something different. It felt awkward from the beginning, kind of like trying to write with one's left hand should one be naturally right-handed.

But that was a little later. In some respects, the onset of treatment-resistant depression, my official diagnosis at that time, was a blessing in disguise. It ensured that I didn't have to take an honors course taught by an unhinged, burnt-out teacher. We all called her Mrs. Krabappel, behind her back, after the jaded educator from the television series The Simpsons. Though she had complete command of the discipline she taught, she did not exert any control over her frequent fits of temper. I knew her well because she coached me in Scholars' Bowl. Once or twice I ended up on the receiving end of several choice profanities, one of them being the F bomb.

I often joke that in my own writing, I've gone from unknown to very very obscure. In time, I hope to remove one of those adverbs. Being only very obscure is my next goal. Having tasted the beginnings of success, my next goal is to someday end up revered and respected by a cult audience. I've been at this for five long years and have no intentions of stopping here. The free content era has stretched everyone considerably, and it's difficult not to be pessimistic. Writing, much like performing live music, is a profession and a discipline with lots of talented craftspeople and not enough slots to fill.

Regardless of the impediments, a well-received column of mine reminded me to credit the person who kept the voices of doubt at bay. Earlier in the week, I shared my work with him. It pleased me greatly to hear his words of praise. Following graduation, he asked about me numerous times, always adding that he hoped I was still writing. The e-mail I sent him, after close to fifteen years of no direct communication, was to thank him for the encouragement. He must have seen something promising in the words that I wrote and able to look beyond the rookie mistakes. I am always my own worst critic.

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