Every now and then I wonder how my life might have turned out if, somewhere along the line, some counselor at either my high school or the university had said, “Since your SAT scores are terrific in both math and English, let’s look in both directions — have you ever considered writing or editing or something related like library science?” Because it never occurred to me there was anything to do with a degree related to language or literature beyond being a teacher, and at 18, it was a profession I wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole.
NOT because I have anything against teaching or teachers, heavens, no! I didn’t feel I had the patience, and that I would therefore be a bad teacher. And if I couldn’t do it well, I should stay away from it.
So instead I became…a math major.
Go ahead, ask me what I thought I was going to do for a living with a math major.
Answer: I had no frickin’ clue. I still don’t know. And that was something else I wish some counselor somewhere along the line had thought to ask me. Might have clarified things mightily if I realized I did not know, going into college, exactly what I wanted to do for a living. Or even generally. Looking back on it, I wonder if Mom being so down on acting (the only thing I ever had really wanted to try) made me somehow not care about what I did.
If so, that would have been a most counterproductive attitude. Kind of what makes me think it’s exactly what happened. At any rate, no such conversations were had, and I chose math as my major, and spent two years watching my grades in my major-related required courses sink like a stone, while all the non-major requirements or electives were solid A’s with the occasional B.
Which was itself a huge letdown, considering I graduated high school with a 3.98 GPA. I might have managed 4.0 if the principal hadn’t forced me to take a typing class (yes, yes, on a typewriter, it was the Dark Ages, shut it) instead of letting me have two free periods. One free period was fine, and they let me “take” American History without ever setting foot in the room (read the book and did the homework in the office during said free period). But no, only one free period, and the only thing available during that time slot I hadn’t already taken was typing, and when my mom asked whether it was going to have a negative effect on my GPA, the principal assured her it wouldn’t, that it would be more like PE which didn’t affect our GPAs.
I got a C, thus killing my hoped-for 4.0.
My mother was convinced the principal had done this solely so the guy who’d been accepted to the Naval Academy could be the valedictorian with a 3.99 GPA. She even confronted him about it, in a small but pointed way, after the graduation ceremony. He had the grace to look…well, in retrospect, he looked rather like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Jerk.
Dragging us back on track, math major, grades falling in calculus classes, a C in a PASCAL programming class (and that without ever writing a functional program; still boggled), B or C in physics (but I loved that class, it was fascinating!)…and I aced American History and every English class I touched and got a B in philosophy (I think, although that might have been an A also) and did so well in my mythology class the instructor gave me and A AND excused me from the final — the seventh student so treated in his 35-year teaching career.
I wonder if the universe was trying to tell me something? If so, I still wasn’t listening.
I was, however, listening when the university pulled the supplemental scholarship that paid for the books and the parking pass (commuter student, go me!) and other ancillary expenses not covered by the full state scholarship I’d won. Changed to a state uni, and finally came to my senses about the math major being a mistake, since I still had no idea what to do with it in real life. So I switched.
To accounting. True, it was still numbers, but at least I knew there were jobs for accounting majors, which felt like an improvement.
Right up until I noticed the same damned pattern in my major-related classes versus my electives as I’d seen with the math major. Nothing to be done, though, because even at the new school, no counselor who looked at my SAT scores and my transcripts from the previous uni had anything to say about switching tracks into English-related that wasn’t teaching.
At any rate, I did graduate, I did go into accounting for an investment-advisory firm (after a short job doing accounts payable for a landscaper my mom knew…and who turned out to be not the world’s most ethical person…and an equally short job doing receivables for a word processing software company), and then my coworker brought in that Extension course catalog.
All of which is preface. One of my friends posted something today about a writing exercise like one of the ones I described in yesterday’s post: tell the story of what’s happening in a famous painting. As I mentioned, the exercise in my class also included the option to write about what happened when the painting itself turned up where it wasn’t supposed to be. This is the painting on the postcard I pulled from the deck:
The artist is Berthe Morisot, and the painting is “Le Bercau” (“The Cradle”). And this is the second version of what I wrote in class, after some feedback from the instructor and other students. It’s called “Meeting”:
The scythe, a sharp moon-crescent of steel, mows the wheat before him with a sigh. He pauses to take a whetstone from his pocket and polish a nick from the blade, mop his face with a bedraggled blue bandanna, then replaces his battered straw hat and returns, head down, to his work.
An eyeblink later the hat is knocked from his head. He backs up a step, startled. Who has thrown a rock at him while he works?
But it is no rock. The farmer stands eye-to-eye…no, eye to hand, with an oil-paint child. He stares at the scene suspended before him. Suspended how is a mystery, since he stands in the midst of his wheat field, yet here it hangs—a dark-haired young woman looking down at the infant asleep in a cradle. Beyond her, through the lacy curtains, burns the blue of his own Nebraska sky hanging over the self-same wheat. His scythe drops unnoticed onto the dark, rich earth.
That hair—who has given her that hair, the color of new tilled fields? Is it her child in the cradle? He reaches out, not sure it is a physical thing hanging in the air, and touches canvas.
The child’s hand is dim, obscured by netting that hangs from a hook above the cradle. Just a brush of pink, that hand, curled in its innocence upon the white of the child’s gown. One rough, brown hand, stained with labor and earth, rises again, traces the shape of that small hand. Tears come, like rain in high summer, and he falls to his knees in his field of ripened wheat and weeps that he never knew the young woman in her blue-striped dress, never held the sleeping child to his breast before laying it in the white womb of its crib. He fancies he sees a finger move, beckon, and he stands his scythe blade-down against the dirt to use the handle as a prop.
Pulling himself upright, he embraces the canvas and lays his cheek against the hand of the painted child.
I let a few people at work read it, and they said I expand it, but nothing ever felt right. Just…this. Y’all are the first to see it in a decade and a half. I hope you enjoy it.
It made me very happy to write it.