Once upon a time I was in the fourth grade.
Mrs. Drachman had been renamed Mrs. Dracula by those of us in her fourth grade at the Mary Lyon School in Boston. Of course, we were brave enough to call her that only on the playground; we were so clever! Mrs. Dracula probably had a little bit of the terrifying in her from a fourth grader’s perspective. However, in hindsight, she did get some things right.
One day, she gave us a typical elementary school assignment, meant to challenge our growing minds to think beyond the spatial bounds of the playground and the time bounds of recess. The assignment was to write an essay about what we wanted to be when we grew up. Although I remember nothing about the why or the wherefore, I remember distinctly articulating for the first time in my ten years of life that I wanted to be an author. I finished the essay in a timely fashion and let my parents read it. Their reaction, perhaps birthed out of their immigrant intense desire for financial security or perhaps born out of their desire that their children have letters after their names, was “You will never make a living that way. Choose something else.”
Like any good ten-year old, I heard their words and sensed the gross error of my thinking and the stupidity of choosing a career that would most certainly never yield “a living.” I could feel the gravitas of their stern words. I could feel it, but I could not understand why making a living was so important, how it was supposed to happen, and why on earth it should matter to me. Nonetheless, the message was clear: my choice was a mistake. Being an author would never gain my parents’ approval. I was defeated before my first rejection letter.
My career choice got shoved underground, and I never spoke of it again to my parents. I silently found pleasure playing with words, wrote smarmy poetry that mercifully has not been kept, faithfully kept a journal most of my adult life, and loved articulating ideas with words that made other people light up with understanding. However, that ten-year-old’s conviction that words matter and ideas are important, was true. Words are important, not only to myself as self-expression, but as expression to others. Words are part of my life, to the expression of God in me, to me and through me.
That evening, when my parents disapproved my desire to write, it was too late to obey their command to pick something else and write about it. I reluctantly turned the essay in, certain that I would fail the assignment. After all, Mrs. Dracula was an adult. She, too, would see the obvious stupidity of my choice. I lived in terror: my house was not one into which I could bring an assignment with a low grade.
Mrs. Dracula returned my paper with only one comment accompanying the A−: “Nicely written. You are on your way.”
Now, 45 years later, I wish I could say two things to Mrs. Drachman:
I am very sorry I called you Mrs. Dracula. I am finally on my way.
Excerpt from Notes in the Margin by Ellen L. Foell. Ellen is a speaker, teacher and lifelong writer living in a lawyer’s body. She and her husband Phil live in Columbus, Ohio. They have four wonderful adult children, a dog, and a cat, who have all, wittingly or unwittingly, contributed to her first collection of published essays.