Monday, January 20, 2014

On Being Nineteen

A week or so ago, a student of mine stopped me before leaving my classroom. 

“Mrs. Walker. Stephen King wrote an essay as an introduction in one of his Dark Tower novels. I think you would really like it. I have it in my bag. Would you like to borrow my book and read the essay?”

“Sure, Jack. Thanks”, I said. I took the book, placed it on my desk, and headed to lunch. 

Back in my classroom a half hour later, I looked at the piles of correcting I had before me and instead, I found myself reaching for the book Jack had given me. The eight page essay, “On Being Nineteen (And a Few Other Things)” has been traveling with me for days now. Each day I throw Jack’s book into my teaching bag. I have read and reread the essay several times. I need to give the book back to Jack. But first, I want to write about King’s words. 

The piece opens with the writer discussing his love of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and how, at the age of 19 King felt, “endlessly powerful and endlessly optimistic” about writing his own story that would “get inside his readers’ defenses” and “rip..and ravish them forever with nothing but story”. He calls himself “certainly arrogant” at 19, but is quick to say that it’s important to “start out too big for your britches”, because if you’re not, “how are you gonna fill ‘em when you grow up?”

The discussion took me back to my own 19th year. I was a freshman in college and I had just switched my major from theater to communication. I would make another change and become an English major before graduating at the age of 22, but at that point, I was trying things on for size, experimenting and enjoying courses which had me learning the nuances of interpersonal, family, and small group communication. I loved public speaking and was an enthusiastic presenter, earning A’s in all of my classes. I would not have called myself arrogant by any means however, but I can say that I felt the refreshing breeze of confidence, knowing I had so many options and all the time in the world to figure out where these classes would take me next. 

At the age of 19 I was also about to say “Yes” to one of the numerous marriage proposals Eric made to me that year. I kept stalling but luckily he was patient. I knew I wanted him in my life forever, but I did need reassurance that becoming engaged that young wasn’t ridiculous. I spoke to my Mom when I finished my freshman year. Mom knew we’d been together for over four years, however, and she completely trusted my judgement. I returned to college for my sophomore year with a diamond on my left hand. Eric and I were married in the midst of my junior year, four months short of my 21st birthday. (And in case you missed it, he and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this past November)! 

At the age of 19 I too felt endlessly optimistic, and as I look and listen to my two college aged daughters, I see that in them as well. Sydney, at the age of 22 calls me to excitedly tell me about a possible job lead and I hear the exuberance in her voice and smile with pride. Emma will turn 19 as her freshman year of college comes to a close come spring. She speaks now of the ideas she has for spring break, summer, and next year and again, I smile at the memory of what it felt like to be on the cusp of something great. 

This morning I woke up to a text from one of my teens, a senior girl in my Creative Writing class. She wrote to thank me for helping her with her reading and writing this year and proudly announced that a teen publication I had prepared her to submit to had deemed her story “the third best of the day”. Yes, being a teacher of near-nineteen year olds is a wonderful way to remain “endlessly optimistic”. 

The funny thing is, I still feel nineteen. I continue to see all the possibilities for where my life will go from here, and I could not feel more powerful, more hopeful, and more alive. Maybe I’ll always be too big for my britches, but there’s truly nothing like writing your own story. 

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