Apparently, this is question week on Time Goes By because yesterday I asked about writing and today, I have another for you. First, some background.
Somewhere about sixth or seventh grade, teachers began talking to us about having a goal in life, planning for a career, deciding what we wanted to be when we grew up and from that point forward, it became a regular topic of classroom discussion.
Although girls were nominally included in these exercises, teachers were not serious in our regard. “Wife and mother” was an acceptable answer and most girls of my era delivered on that expectation both in class and soon after high school graduation. It was the 1950s; things were different then.
These lessons were an annoyance for me because I couldn’t tell the truth. I wanted to be a writer and I thought about it a lot in private hours at home, picturing myself someday pounding away at my typewriter in a room surrounded by books – my own private library. But girls didn’t have such ambitions where I came from and I also had massive doubts about my ability. So I never told anyone, not even my best friend. It was my not-so-little secret dream.
Cut to awhile later, my junior year in high school. I don’t remember the exact writing assignment we were given in English class, but I have no doubt my essay was on topic – I was such a goody two-shoes in those days. (I've written about this seminal event before, so if you know it, you can skip to the last three or four paragraphs.)
The story I turned in speculated that houses take on the feelings of people who had lived in them. My mother had rented a small house in the south end of Sausalito that turned out to have a lot of funny, little things wrong with it. When the toilet was flushed, a loud groan surged forth from deep in the pipes. It didn’t stop unless you ran to the kitchen and turned on the water in the sink.
The latch on the back door always clicked shut as it should. But the door never failed to have come open next time you walked by. And so on, you get the idea. My conclusion was that people who had lived there before must have had a lot of jolly times in the house because it played so many tricks on us. I remember being quite pleased with myself, thinking it was the best story I’d ever written particularly because it was an original idea I’d never heard before.
Some days later, our papers were returned with our grades. I “knew” mine would be an A – it always was – and I still remember being stunned, feeling the blood rush out of my head when I saw the D.
The teacher had appended a note to the grade in red ink, something about the story having no basis in fact and “Houses do not have personalities.”
Although I had been struggling alone for a long time trying to figure out how one went about becoming a writer, it didn’t matter anymore. My dream died that day in English class. I believed then that teachers knew what they were talking about and clearly I could not be a writer with such wrong-headed ideas.
Which left me with no goal.
I floundered around in office jobs for awhile after finishing school, then became a radio show producer and, before long, a television producer. They were interesting jobs. I traveled the world, worked with kings and queens and movie stars and heads of state. I was paid to do what I like – find out everything there is to know about Katharine Hepburn for a primetime interview, for example, and about hate crimes or hurricanes or the Unabomber or anything else that came up for documentaries, and fashion it all into video stories.
I wrote for all those shows, but it was more of a group effort than I’d had in mind as a kid. Later, I got closer to my childhood dream when I left television for cbsnews.com when the internet was new and we were still inventing it; I did more individual writing than in television.
Now, half a century after that fateful day in English class, I tap out stories on my laptop in a room surrounded by books – my own private library - for this blog and occasionally for the Wall Street Journal and some other publications. (Take THAT, Miss English Teacher Dream Killer or whatever your name was.)
So for a kid who had no goal, life turned out to be a whole lot more interesting than I had expected. I worked at what came along, drifting with whatever winds of chance and serendipity allowed me to make a living. It was mostly surprises, one after another, and nothing I could have predicted.
So the question today, which no one can answer until they are old, is: has your life turn out the way you expected?
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dorothy explains how she has overcome regrets in Memories of My Mom.]