Thursday, October 21, 2010

You Can Do Anything

Elizabeth Zelvin

In the course of an e-list discussion on the teaching of mystery fiction in schools, one of my fellow Guppies mentioned that she is planning to have her students start a class novel. It was a timely reminder for me, coming a few days before a get-together with a group of junior high school classmates with whom I wrote what our English teacher called a “cyclical novel,” of which each of us wrote a chapter. It is one of our most powerful memories as a group. It started me thinking about why that was so and exactly what kind of impact the experience had on us.

A little backstory first: we grew up in Queens (the second least cool of New York’s outer boroughs) who spent two years together in a class for kids with high IQs and musical aptitude from 1955 to 1957. None of us became musicians, and I’m the only fiction writer, but we have several accomplished poets, teachers, lawyers, academics, and one billionaire who walked away from tenure as a philosophy professor to become a hedge fund manager (very cool). We all rediscovered each other as a group shortly after the 50-year mark. There’s a great fascination in getting to pool memories of yourselves at eleven. The boys have vivid, detailed memories of playing baseball every day at lunch. The girls remember who got interested in boys first and which teachers were supportive of our preadolescent angst. We all remember playing spin the bottle and the hoopla around invitations to the prom. We even remember some of what we learned in class. We were smart kids, after all. But writing that novel was powerful enough to stick in everybody’s mind.

Interestingly, not everybody liked Mrs. P. She had a strong personality and tended to play favorites. Some remember that they loved her, others hated her and tell stories that provide ample reason. I liked her and did well with her—no more, because my mother was such a powerful role model for me that it never occurred to me to look for any others. This is relevant to my topic, because both these strong women gave the same message: You can do anything. Remember, it was the 1950s, when most girls were being groomed to be perfect housewives and mothers, even if they went to college, as we all expected to do. And even for the boys, I believe there was a glass ceiling, an unstated limit on what a middle-class Jewish boy from Queens could be.

In this context, it meant a lot to us to be told, Yes, you’re eleven years old, and you can write a novel. I certainly believed I could. Maybe it’s thanks to Mrs. P. that I had enough persistence to keep trying till I finally had my first novel published at the age of 64. She eventually quit teaching and went to law school, probably when she was in her forties, if not her fifties. My mother used to run into her at Queens College, where she herself got a doctorate in political science at the age of 69, after having gone to law school herself in 1921. She too taught me that I could do anything.

It’s not a matter of doing what these women did themselves. I never wanted to be a lawyer. But it’s probably thanks to them both that I went into the Peace Corps after college, took flying lessons in my thirties, became a therapist in my forties, and learned to use a computer in my fifties, so I could practice online therapy and write and promote my mysteries while sitting at the keyboard in my sixties. Now I’m working on a CD of my songs. The title is Outrageous Older Woman, and it might not be completed till I’m 70. But hey, why not? When I was eleven, I wrote a novel. I can do anything.


Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

i love this.

Sandra Parshall said...

Great post, Liz. Never let anyone step on your dreams! Teachers are in an especially powerful position to influence the futures of their students, and it's wonderful when they recognize that and use their influence in a positive way.

Meredith Cole said...

You sure can do anything, Liz! Great & inspiring post.

We missed you in San Francisco...

Pat T. said...

This was a really good post. I too had strong women tell me I could do anything (graduated from h.s. in 1961) and studying in a women's college also helped me with this. Teachers were a big part of my life, too.

Not that I've done anything earthshaking, but I truly do believe I could have (and can) do anything I want to do!

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Thanks, everyone. I had dinner with three of the women from that class last night. They are all terrific, and we did talk about the novel--and the boys. ;)

Anita Page said...

Great post, Liz.

I,too, grew up in the second least cool borough, and went to Queens College. As I'm sure you know, the city colleges in those years offered a first-class--and free!--education to qualified city residents. Mary Doyle Curran, a wonderful short story writer and teacher, inspired my own writing.

Ellis Vidler said...

How interesting. Aside from my parents, some of my teachers were serious role models for me, and many inspired me. They were so encouraging and made us believe we could do anything--not the prevailing attitude of those times.

Nice post, Liz.

Marilyn Levinson said...

I LOVED your blog. I didn't have a strong role model as you did, and had to depend on myself, pretty much.

Rochelle Staab said...

Liz, I loved your blog today. I grew up in the '50s too and was fortunate to have female role models who promised I could do anything I dreamed of. Thank you so much for bringing back the memories.

Anonymous said...

How interesting & inspiring! Thanks for sharing this!