Ultimately, a teacher is to blame for making me a writer. How about you?

I learned to type in the class I mention here, too. And, yes, children, there were things called typewriters. And they weren't even electric! (Photo by Cast a Line via Twitter)

I learned to type in the class I mention here, too. And, yes, children, there were things called typewriters. And they weren’t even electric! (Photo by Cast a Line via Twitter)

In her Prof KRG blog, Kenna Griffin asks:

When did you discover your love for writing? I’d love to hear your stories.

She cites a study of journalists in which “Basically, the journalists interviewed spoke about how they always wanted to be journalists, having identified the profession during their youth. The journalists reported that they began writing in grade school, spent time reading newspapers with family members or even “worked” at their family’s newspaper.”

I was ready to say “not me.” I trace my decision to become a journalist to junior year in high school. Up to then, I had planned to become a high school teacher — a profession my sister and one of my brothers had experience with. But at some point during junior year, I sat up and realized that a teaching job would put me in front of the same kind of bullies and jerks who infested my own classes. And I had every reason to believe I couldn’t control them. I wasn’t so worried about what that would do to me, as what it would mean for the students like me stuck in my classes.

So I switched — to the law. And that lasted only until I saw a photo on the careers page of the Chicago Tribune that showed a young lawyer kneeling in the middle of two endless rows of shelving. She was pulling a file from the stacks. In that one instant, I saw the law as drudgery. Without a Plan C prepared, I decided that, well, I had liked working on the school paper, and I liked to write. I thus became perhaps the only journalist of my generation not to be inspired by “All the President’s Men.” And one of the few to go into reporting because law seem like too much time spent researching.

But after I read Griffin’s post again, I realized that I *had* worked on the school paper. I even started one up in grade school. My family read at least two papers a day. By the time I made the final decision in junior year, I had already mourned the death of what is still my favorite paper of all time, Chicago Today.

And as to Griffin’s broader question — when did I discover a love for writing? The schoolwork my dear mother carefully preserved tells me I was writing rather odd essays as early as second grade. But I’m a believer in the phrase Henri Cartier-Bresson borrowed from Cardinal de Retz, who said “There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”

So let’s go to the summer between sixth and seventh grades. I’m in a summer “enrichment class,” the first time I’ve gone to a school other than St. Wenceslaus, the first time I’ve been in a class where most of the pupils’ names didn’t end in vowels. The day was already not going well. My mom had taken me to Kelvyn Park High on the bus. I was so nervous, sitting in the auditorium with a hundred or so strangers, that I started to feel sick. I rushed out of the hall, but I didn’t know where the bathrooms were. I decorated a water fountain instead.

I may also have forgotten a crucial piece of paper. I remember having to call my dad and have him drive it over, and send one of my brothers in to deliver it.

I was a bit distracted, then, when I finally got to the creative writing class I was taking. The teacher had us sit in a circle and pair off. We were each supposed to interview the other. Then, she said, we’d each tell a story. The girl I was paired with had a pretty interesting life. Her father was a pilot, so they traveled a lot (I’d never been anywhere but Chicago and Peshtigo, Wis.) I took some notes, and then she interviewed me.

Now it was time to tell a story. The teacher asked me to start. I told quite a story, about a bizarre land that bore a striking resemblance to the Ruritania in W.C. Fields’ 1941 comedy, “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” without the game of Squigilum. (I have my older siblings and WGN’s weekend movies to thank for my misspent youth.) As I finished, there was an awkward silence. All eyes were on me, which seemed like a good thing until the teacher gently pointed out that I had not mentioned my partner at all. Oh. We were supposed to tell each other’s life stories, not just any story. There’s never a trap door beneath you when you need one.

In that moment, I could have learned to despise writing forever. But that teacher — bless her soul, and I wish I could remember her name — merely suggested that I work my partner into the story when I wrote it up. Which I did — she ended up as a princess, and her little dog was in there, too. And I loved that teacher, and that class, and writing, ever since.

What’s your story? Kenna Griffin would like to know.


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