Once upon a time, back when I was a 5th grader in a small Texas town, we had career day at our school. We all had to dress up as what we wanted to be when we grew up, and take turns standing on a stage in front of the whole school and saying what that was.
Most of the girls in my class wanted to be teachers, and the boys were fighter pilots, police officers, or doctors. My best friend wanted to be a brain surgeon, and I stood on that stage and announced "When I grow up, I'm going to be an author." (My "costume" was jeans, a t-shirt, hair in a pony tail, pencils stuck in my hair, and glasses. It's all correct except the glasses.)
I can still recall the pursed lips of my teacher, and the way she looked at us over her glasses. We weren't picking "girl jobs", and I'm not sure she approved. Later that day she called me up to her desk and asked me why I wanted to be a writer. I looked down at my shoes, shrugged my shoulders, and eloquently mumbled, "I dunno."
"Being an author is hard work," she told me. "It's very difficult to write a book, and even harder to get one published. I don't think you know just how hard that job really is."
Even now, nearly 30 years later, I can feel the hot flush of my cheeks and the tears that prickled my eyes. I let out the breath I'd been holding and said dejectedly, "I guess I could be a Navy pilot like my dad...."
"Maybe you should think about it," she said gently, "I'm not sure that the military lets women fly planes." (They didn't back then.)
For years I've remembered the hopelessness I felt as a kind word from a well-meaning woman almost crushed my dreams. It has made me eager to encourage, and wary of warning. It also made me determined.
Which is why, when I became an author, I took one of my shiny new books and sent it off to her. I inscribed it "To Mrs T - who taught me consider all the possibilities that life might hold." I was slightly giddy as I included a screen shot of my book at the #1 spot on the best seller list.
I don't know what I hoped that her reaction would be, but I have it on very good authority that she has proudly shown off both the book and the print out to anyone she can. I've somehow become her "most favorite pupil," and the one she "knew would do great things."
I think I'll let her have that one. I've recently reread my journals from way back then, and while she may have tried to put a damper on my dreaming, she's also the lady who told me "Stop trying so hard to please me. Don't worry about what you think I want to hear. Do your work the best way that you know how and work as hard as you can. Then when you turn it in, you can sleep easy." I wrote it down because I didn't know what she meant back in the day, and I hoped some day that I would get it.
At almost 40, I get it...but I'm still glad she's pleased with the work I sent her. It was like getting a hard won gold star from one of the toughest teachers I ever had. I'm even prouder that it is exactly as I wanted it to be...and I know that's the part she'd like best of all.