I’ve always been a person with big dreams. I wasn’t just going to be a novelist, I was also going to be a screenwriter, and I was going to win an Academy Award. None of those things have happened–yet. But I feel like they could, because I’ve had the ability to Make Stuff Happen for myself. There’s a bit of good luck involved, but there has also been a lot of work.
The first time was in high school. I was in Beginner Band, and drudging through dreary scales and dire renditions of “Hot Cross Buns.” I had a friend who had been playing clarinet since fourth or fifth grade, and she was proficient enough to be in concert band. She loved music, and she made concert band sound like the height of cool: they played in a concert and people came to watch (okay it was mostly parents, but even so), they played medleys to Phantom of the Opera and Aladdin, which sounded way better than the theme to the Magnificent Seven that we were playing. After hearing her rhapsodic descriptions, I decided that would one day be me. I was a freshman at the time, and I would spend sophomore year in Intermediate Band, and graduate to Concert Band by the start of junior year. Then, for fun, I decided that the concert band would also play a Les Mis melody because that was my recent obsession.
So began a year and a half of hard work. I borrowed the school flute several times a week and most weekends and played an hour a night. I found out that I could take instruments home over the summer and did just that, playing on my grandparents’ deck until the neighbors shouted through an acre of woods for me to stop playing. I bought every piece of sheet music I could. The next school year I had Intermediate Band for an elective in the fall, and still practiced tirelessly. I picked up one of the open hole flutes and trained myself on that. I would have killed for private lessons, but my parents couldn’t afford it, and the honor’s high school I went to didn’t permit time for after school jobs. In the spring, when I was taking creative writing, I gave up my lunch period to play with the Intermediate Band which fortuitously met at that time.
At the end of the year, it was time to fill out elective forms. I had to get the band teacher to sign off on concert band, and when I nervously presented him with my slip, he smiled and signed me in. It was so easy, and my friend Lisa got in too, so I thought he was just letting everyone in. But our friend Greg was playing saxophone in Intermediate Band, and Mr. Lustig didn’t sign him off. I realized perhaps this was dint of my hard work.
I spent junior year as a 3rd flute, but I was happy to be there. By senior year, I had made it up to the first row with my stand mate since the beginning, Joanne. Mr. Lustig passed out the medley we would be playing for the winter concert, the one which would close out the show. It was Les Mis.
This may seem like such a small thing, getting into Concert Band in high school. Don’t band geek jokes abound? (Although in my high school, which was full of geeks and nerds and all sorts, it was actually semi-cool. Or at least some cooler kids were in band.) But to me, it meant the reward for hard work, and how much I could give to something I wanted, and how that moved me towards a goal. I didn’t know I had so much power.
So when I got to college, and I saw and fell in love with Paris over a weekend my freshman year, I decided I would do a study abroad my junior year, and to justify said study abroad I would add a French major and double major in English and French. I only learned afterwards that this wouldn’t have been necessary if I’d covered all my English credits, but that information didn’t bother me. It didn’t matter to me that I had taken Spanish and Latin in high school and only a semester of college French. I was going to major in French. Again, I worked as hard as I could. I skipped over the required Intermediate French II to take a literature course, which was required for the major, and got the signature from the chair of the Foreign Languages Department (it helped that she was my advisor). My school didn’t have a study abroad program, they partnered with a school in Iowa, Central College. I had to apply, and nervous though I was, I got accepted. I arrived in Paris nervous, but prepared to revel in the year abroad I had dreamed of. I had Paris as a destination since college, but even in high school I wanted to study abroad. Once in France, I decided that while I tested into Level B at the Sorbonne’s course for international students in the fall, in the spring I was going to jump over Level A to Section Universitaire, which required writing a 20 page paper on French literature. In French. And I did it. I spent a year wandering round Paris with virtually no money, and hours holed up in my unglamorous room at the foyer comparing the depiction of youth in Balzac’s Peau de Chagrin with those in Hugo’s Les Miserables, and I loved every second of it, from writing letters in front of the Fontaine des Medicis in the Luxembourg–it was the turn of the millennium and the internet was nowhere near as pervasive–to frequenting the homme des crepes, as I dubbed him, on the Boulevard Saint Germain just off the Boulevard Saint Michel, to reveling in the stationary department of Galleries Lafayette and the large scale paintings in the Louvre.
My senior year in college I finally decided I wanted to be a teacher…except I hadn’t taken any teaching courses, and I was up to my neck in student loan debt. I took some admin assistant jobs and hated them, and managed to get myself fired twice in two years (though I had three jobs, in my paltry defense). Clearly I was going nowhere with that, but I still wanted to be a teacher. I had dreams of one day going back to teach English at the high school I attended, which I paradoxically loved. On the subway, they had ads for the New York City Teaching Fellows program, and I applied, playing hooky from work one day to finish my application. Looking back I think that was the final straw when they were considering whether to fire me or not, but it turned out to be a worthwhile move–I was accepted to the program. I got my Masters in Education for free and spent five exhausting but rewarding years teaching in some of the rougher schools in Manhattan. I would have stayed on a couple years more, but a job at Townsend Harris opened up, and I seized the day and wrote an application letter, quoting our school’s Ephebic Oath. They made us take an oath. It was a weird place. They called me in for an interview, and then I didn’t hear anything. I thought it wasn’t going to happen, so I left all my teaching materials at my old school and said I tried, and that I would try again. But in July they called me in to do a sample lesson for some kids who had volunteered to come in. Over the summer. And off the back of this, they hired me. Teaching there was very work intensive, but it was hands down the best job of my entire life. I would have worked there until I retired if it hadn’t been for love intervening.
I’m bragging about these triumphs, but the thing is, I’m lazy. Something has been holding me back from completing a novel and sending it off for publication, and I think it’s a combination of procrastination, laziness, and fear. What if this is the one time I can’t make things happen by sheer force of will and hard work? What if chance, which has helped me along, fails me?
I think though, this is where my propensity to worry comes in. Yes, it might not work out, but when I look back and I really tried for something, I got it. That’s a pretty powerful thing, so why be afraid?