“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Anita asked her seven year-old daughter.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I answered,
“An author. I want to be an author.”
“That’s a great goal. You’d be very good at that. I’ve seen your schoolwork and you already write well, spell like a champ, and you have quite an imagination,” Anita encouraged.
I grabbed the yellow and brown crayons, and turned to illustrate my story about zoo animals. Busily coloring in the giraffe, I smiled. Mom believes I can do it. All seemed right with the world, for the moment anyhow.
“Why do grown-ups always ask kids what they want to be when they’re adults?” I wondered. What’s the matter with asking what we want to be right now? For me, the answer wouldn’t be any different today than another year far off in the future.
For me, books were an ever-changing landscape of wild adventures, offering endless challenges to think about, and feel. I easily was lost in whatever I read or wrote.
Mrs. Hillygus, my second-grade teacher, often gave our class dittoes with story prompts and little pictures at the top. Her students were to continue the stories across the lined pages. Within a minute or two after reading the prompt, my pencil rapidly ran amok. It failed to stop at the bottom of the page, or on the back of it. My story ran down the fronts and backs of at least three more pages.
If Mrs. Hillygus hadn’t stopped the writing activity then, likely my imagination would’ve continued twenty pages. I looked around at my classmates and their papers. No one else had stapled additional pages to their stories. Some kids didn’t even make it to the bottom of the ditto. I was secretly proud of my writing, and felt well on my way to becoming an author.
The next afternoon, Mrs. Hillygus passed their graded stories back to her students. Mine had a large red A+ in the top right corner. Wait, there’s a note too! Could this get any better?
I read my teacher’s note slowly to relish the compliments sure to come my way. My heart fluttered excitedly. The note said:
“Very imaginative story! You use your new vocabulary words so well, and your spelling and grammar is quite good too. Please try to keep your stories to a page or two. There are thirty other kids in this class, and I have to grade all these papers. Yours takes three times as long as anyone else’s.”
My heart sank as low as it had been high at the beginning of the note. I leaned over, pretending to look hard inside my desk for some missing item, and stifled a sob. A few tears chased each other down flushed cheeks in a race to drop off my chin first.
I wanted so much to do whatever would please Mrs. Hillygus, but I had a herd of wild horses running inside my head. Trying to stop these ideas from being free would be like attempting to hold the horses back with a strand of dental floss.
The next time a ditto with a story prompt landed on my desk, I tried to curtail the horses, but all I had on hand was a minty strand of floss. It was out of my hands. The horses dashed toward freedom as if their very lives depended on it. I wasn’t big enough or old enough to restrain them. Mrs. Hillygus didn’t write me any more notes, but she rolled her eyes in tired resignation when my stapled stack of a story reached her hands.
Eugenia Hillygus didn’t know what forces pushed so many words out of her pupil, or that these stories were amongst few times of sheer joy in my life. Perhaps she didn’t continue trying to restrain my muses because she’d seen tears well up in my eyes after her note. Or, maybe she recognized the talent and didn’t want to suppress the precocious voice and imagination. Either way, I happily continued writing unabated, without notes that made my cheeks burn with salty tears. Though I liked to see the red A’s and A+s on the top right of my paper, I missed the encouraging parts of that first note.
On my frequent walks to the library, I always stopped to pet the white equine on the corner of Rock and Oddie Boulevards. I scooped handfuls of fallen hay and grass and invited the lone horse to nibble from my open palms. The mare’s lips tickled my hands as it finished off the snack. When I remembered, I brought the horse a left-over carrot or apple to munch. This stop was as delightful as perusing the stacks of books in the library.
I imagined being astride this horse, riding her out of the small pasture and into my neighborhood, the envy of my friends and a few bullies. All would certainly pause and look at me. I’d have to settle for stroking the mare’s nose, in between its snorts of pleasure. When the horse chewed the hay I offered, I saw green around the tops of the long front teeth. “You really could use some floss, old girl!”
Once in front of the children’s section, I selected as many books as I could carry the four long blocks home. My interests were so varied it wasn’t difficult to find books that piqued my insatiable curiosity. I set the growing pile on the low table next to me, to see if there wasn’t another one or two books I had to get. Without fail I read them all every time, and these book marathons were like private parties. I snuck flashlights under my sheets to read after my parents turned off the lights.
Standing in front of the shelves of books spanning the entire northern window, I slipped into a daydream. The clock ticked toward dinner time without my noticing. All the books on the shelf nearest my eyes bore my name on their spines. I couldn’t quite see the titles, but my name was clear. One day, I would achieve this. The librarian stood behind me, startled me when she spoke.
“Can I help you, young lady?” the tiny woman asked.
“Thank you,” I said, remembering the manners that had been drilled into her.
“I have enough, I guess. I better get home for dinner. I’ll be doing good to get all these home.”
“I’m Agnes Risley, the head librarian,” the kindly woman said. “You let me know whenever I can help you.”
“Agnes Risley? That’s the name on my school. Wow! You must be really something to get a school named after you!” I enthusiastically exclaimed.
“I don’t know about that, but I’ve lived in this town for a very long time, and been working at this library since it opened for the first time.” Mrs. Risley replied, humbly.
“I’ve seen you come in here week after week, and you always get a lot of books. I notice that you return them on time too. Nothing warms a teacher or librarian’s heart like a child who loves books.”
“I’d read all day and all night if my mother let me,” I added.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” the diminutive librarian asked.
“I’m going to be an author and fill these shelves up with books that have my name on them!”
“I’m sure you will, young lady. I’m sure you will. With your love of reading, and attending such a fine school, you’re bound to reach your goal.”
Glancing at the clock, I decided to leave quickly, or risk being late for dinner.
“I better go! I’ll see you next time Mrs. Risley. It was so nice to meet you.” I grabbed the unwieldy stack of slippery books and checked out.
“Good-bye young lady. Happy reading!” Agnes softly called to the girl in her strongest library voice.
Trudging home with books piled to my chin, I basked in the glow of another adult thinking I can become an author. This one is a librarian. If anyone knows what it takes to be an author, it had to be the head keeper of the magical pages! I looked forward to my reading marathon. Mom can’t fault me for picking entertainment that was educational, free, and doesn’t require her supervision. She knew her daddy would like the “free” part even better.
I arrived home in time for dinner, a hair’s breadth away from certain trouble. My arms and shoulders ached from the weight of the books, but regretted nothing. After dinner, I’d curl up with them, and wall out everything else. My private party awaited.
“You really ought to do something else besides reading all the time,” Anita chided, seeing her elder daughter’s nose behind a book yet again.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” my mother asked for the second time in as many days. Perhaps this question was spurred by my book loving ways, or she didn’t remember asking me such a short time ago.
“I’m going to be an author, and fill the shelves up with books that have my name on them,” I asserted.
“What makes you think you can do that? You’re living in a fantasy world if you think you’ll ever achieve that! It is just a silly pipe dream,” my mother said, walking away. She went to the back of the house to retrieve the laundry from the dryer. Anita didn’t hear the retort of her fearfully quiet but doggedly determined daughter.
“I will too be an author. Just you wait and see. I’ll do just to spite you.” My steely resolve didn’t deter the tear that was escaping, burning hot with humiliation. Again. Next time she asks this question, I hoped to remember not to answer. It was a trick. The lump in my throat hardened and widened.
I did grow up and become an author, forty-one years later. I didn’t do it to spite my mother. I had to set those running horses inside my mind, free. I tame those horses when I enter writing contests with word count restrictions, and for most of my blogs. I like to watch which direction my horses head, and their motions along the way. They don’t like being harnessed. While I’m not prolific yet, I’m on my way astride a tall equine, galloping away from the limited, barren pasture where I began her journey.
In memory of a sweet little librarian who knew how to encourage a young child in a significant way. See you in heaven, Agnes Risley!