In the second grade, when I first decided I would become a writer, I had a very clear image of myself far into the future practicing my craft. I would be standing in the kind of generic yet unmistakably officey office that you might see at the beginning of a film noir where the private detective is first being contacted to solve a case. And I would be a man. To my second grade mind I only knew men to be the bosses in offices such as these. I would pace around the desk of my comely secretary, gripping and popping my taut suspenders as pithy, magical phrases escaped from my lips. She would diligently type my words, taking care to correct any mistakes in grammar. Most importantly she would know how to spell. It was inconceivable to me at the time of this fantasy that even twenty years hence and as a portly, pipe-smoking man, I would ever be an accomplished speller.
As my second grade year evolved into Thanksgiving festivities where fresh butter was churned in glass jars passed around a circle of children sitting Indian-style, shaking cream vigorously, I came upon my first favorite writer of all time, Shel Silverstein. He wrote short quirky poems for kids, complete with rough but imaginative illustrations. Still I can picture a crudely drawn, confused camel wearing a giant bra on its humps. I wondered if Shel had a secretary of his own. I thought it might be a way to break into the business if I could convince him to take me on as his protégé once I came of age. I pictured him to be a bit of a tyrant, quick to temper, but also not so cruel that he’d withhold Christmas bonuses. Later, upon finding out that he didn’t much care for children, it made me want to know him even more.
Much to my amazement, as the year sped on to Christmas, I found myself becoming the recipient of many mimeographed spelling awards stapled to the corner of my weekly tests. A cartoon tiger declared that I was indeed a Super Speller, the one I thought only my future secretary could be. I was well on my way to becoming the apprentice of Uncle Shel.
On the day that we were asked to recite a favorite poem from memory, I’d memorized two. Both of them Shel’s. Like a day-old foal, my memorization skills were slowly gaining strength and I was able to retain about six lines worth of prose. It was thrilling. Up until this point, the only other notable attempt I’d made at memorization was with some extracurricular vowel-work. A year or so prior, during a post-meal kitchen table conversation, my mother had felt compelled to bestow upon me the virtues of A-E-I-O-U and sometimes Y. I had never heard of vowels up until this point, although obviously I was familiar with the concept of letters in general. This news excited me beyond measure. I couldn’t believe that there were even more secrets dancing among these cryptic symbols. Unfortunately my excitement didn’t correlate to my ability to retain the information. After repeating the five, sometimes six, letters to the point of exhaustion, my mother, bored with her dimwitted only daughter, abruptly left me to sit alone under the glare of the chandelier globe. Occasionally, after trying to will the information into permanence, I’d call after her, “Wait, what comes after I?” Silence.
This time, however, the memorization of poetry seemed easier. With the tenacity of a nothing-to-lose Rocky, I had set about the task at hand, picking the two shortest poems in my Silverstein collection. I carried my tomes with me at all times for quick reference should I trip over the hard parts. As my mother shopped for the latest fashions, I hid in the middle of department store clothing racks and recited choice lines to anyone browsing my section. And finally, due to the sing-songy structure of my poems and the inanimate nature of books that could not abruptly leave the kitchen table when wearied, I slowly committed my two glorious pieces to memory. Shel would have been proud. Well, there’s a good chance he wouldn’t have cared at all, but I was proud and that’s what mattered. That, and the fact that my mother no longer wondered if she’d always need to keep me in a bib.
As the glum, sloshy gray days of a Midwestern winter perked back up into spring I nurtured my writing bug with the zeal of a youngster blind to the complexities of the world. Mostly that meant daydreaming about going on foreign assignments, like the one we’d embarked on for my older brother’s five-page report on the Amish. For that the whole family had gone on location, taking pictures of horse-drawn buggies riding down modern day state roads. I enjoyed the trip, but the thought of having to come up with five whole pages at that point in my career was too daunting. So instead I sat in the backseat licking at my old fashioned ice cream treat, squealing cheerfully every time a buggy came into view. Let my secretary worry about filling up the page.
At the end of the school year, after our Dixie cups of orange drink from the giant yellow and red McDonalds’ drink coolers had been emptied. After our desks had been cleared out and my Super Speller tigers collected for mom’s folder marked, “Kids’ Crap,” I headed out the doors of our school intending to become a budding author. Of course, by the next day it was time for swim team and instead of looking forward to becoming the next David Wallace Foster, I was eagerly looking forward to becoming a fish.
Originally published on TravelBetty