Sunday, June 8, 2014

Planting the writing seed

I remember her words as if they were spoken yesterday.
Rich @ 18 years old

The faculty at my high school here in Rumford offered short, 8-week courses on selected topics. These innovative offerings gave students a chance to jump into a topic of interest and give it a ride. For the late 1960s and early 1970s, these mini courses proved to be very popular among the long-haired, bell-bottomed student body.

I'm guessing my friend and then assistant principal Ken Nye had a lot to do with the courses. Ken had just finished a PhD in educational leadership at Northwestern and ended up here in Rumford. He also introduced independent study week (I studied law!) and a decade later, he approved the soccer club I proposed.

For one of my mini courses, I selected creative writing with Mrs. Catherine Puiia. In this class we played with lots of approaches and there was no such thing as wrong. Although I was not an "A" student, I received a lot of "As" on my papers from Mrs. Puiia. That's not why I loved this class.

For all its innovation, Rumford High School couldn't quite get rid of labeling kids. I floated in the B and occasional A or C "division" known as "A-2." A-1's were the brains of the school. A-2's and A-3's were destined for college. B-1's to B-3's and vocational kids found their labels took them straight to the service or better yet to the paper mill or the woods to earn good livings in the middle class.

(I may be wrong in this, but I believe kids in different divisions were allowed to choose any of the mini courses. I hope that's true because mixed or heterogeneously-grouped classes are what we now know to be the most effective in 21st century schools.)

In creative writing class one day, Mrs. Puiia walked through the classroom passing back papers. I received--oh-hum--yet another A. But something else was about to happen that, in my mind today, changed my life. Up until that moment, no teacher had ever spoken about  my future to me. But Mrs. Puiia did. She placed the paper on my desk and said, "Richard, you could be a professional writer some day." I'm sure I blushed--heck, I spent half my teenaged life red faced with my eyes averted.

Obviously, I've never forgotten those words, and I suspect it's why as an English teacher at that same school nearly 20 years later I spent a lot of my time helping kids think about their futures: "Man, you could be a (insert terrific job)." "You really think so, Mr. Kent?"

In 1971-72, my plan included college and becoming a police office with a law degree. Don't ask… I have no idea. I probably watched too many episodes of TV police shows like "One-Adam-12" and lawyer dramas like "Perry Mason" or "Ironsides." Funny thing is, I did become a police office while in college for 2.5 years at Old Orchard Beach, but eventually bailed on policing and law school to take a job in Indianapolis. After another mind-expanding creative writing class, this time with Walt Whitman Award-winning poet Jared Carter at Indiana University, I quit my job and moved back to Maine to devote time to writing and piecemeal a living by coaching, subbing, and odd jobbing.

One of the first people I saw when I went back home and visited the high school was Mrs. Puiia. Now an assistant principal, Mrs. Puiia introduced me to a new faculty member saying, "Here's one of our most successful graduates!" Bless her… I'd just quit a three-piece-suit position, with a secretary and 2-hour lunches, to substitute teach, coach skiing, and write.

Fortunately, Mrs. Puiia never stopped seeing the better me.

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