I didn’t always live in Queens. Just before sixth grade, we moved out to Long Island, and before you knew it, I was hitting those awkward teen years.

My high school yearbook photo

If you want to know the truth, I was a teenager with no direction, and no ambition whatsoever. A lousy student with even crummier study habits. I was painfully shy and mortified by speech class, where I had to step up to the podium and debate on an issue I didn’t give a hoot about. In geometry and algebra, I was one of the few who managed to turn, what should each have been a year-long course, into 18-month-long ones. What can I say? I needed the extra time for the math to sink in.

My future looked bleak. I was flailing.

Even Mr. Meissner, my science teacher was baffled at the thought of my prospects. He talked me into enrolling in his General Science class which actually proved to be one of my favorite classes because the only thing we didn’t study in that class was science. We were a class of misfits. My “lab” partner was on his third year of being left back. He’d boast that he knew a lot about nothing, and it was true. Everyday, he’d regale us with his breadth of knowledge about the most mundane things. I never knew anyone who knew so much about so little.

Frankly, there was little hope for me. Mrs. McHale, the Home-Economics teacher nearly twisted my arm to get me to take her class so she could teach me how to sew. She literally yanked me out of the hallway one day, and the next thing I knew I was enrolled in her class (much to my chagrin). I hated sewing. I took the class but I never sewed a stitch. My mother, who was a master with the sewing machine, ended up doing it for me. To this day, I can’t even sew a button on a shirt.

The computer teacher practically twisted my other arm to get me to take his class as no other girls had signed up for it. So I did, but these were the computers of the past, pre-Apple and pre-PC’s. There was no internet access. Nothing, but mysterious codes for enormous computers that I was sure would never amount to anything of significance in my lifetime. Those binary numbers just swam over my head and dive-bombed on any future I might have as a computer analyst.

And then two things happened to change my life. And by things, I mean two people: Miss Stern and Lynn.

Miss Stern taught Creative Writing. Up until then, the extent of my writing was limited to assorted diaries I’d kept throughout the years, and the copious notes I’d write in class and pass to my friends, when I should’ve been paying attention to classwork.

And then I took Creative Writing and the world was transformed. It was as if my life had gone from black and white to brilliant Technicolor. My heart became infused with joy. Suddenly, I was turning in assignments on time and raising my hand with record speed–excited to read my work aloud, whether it was an essay describing the contents of my bedroom or  a poem in the style of Ben Johnson. It was in her class that I learned the line, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practise to deceive.”  Oh, how I loved Miss Stern, and how I loved her class. To me, there was nothing better!

Except maybe my friend, Lynn. If you ask me, Lynn had one of those intensely bright minds that left me in awe. She took AP honors classes, and barely needed to blink to get an A. Yep, she was smart as a whip, with a biting sense of humor, much like Dorothy Parker.

Lynn and I traveled in different circles. You could find me with the potheads, the delinquents, and the ones who prided themselves on knowing much about nothing. Whereas, Lynn was with the intellectual crowd, the ones who knew their life plans, and had dreams of going to Princeton, Columbia, or Dartmouth.

And, then one day, by chance, we became friends. Which evolved to good friends. Whereupon, we embarked on a series of fabulous adventures. Just me and Lynn. And, in the process, Lynn changed my life.

Oh, and I suppose this would be as good a time as any, to make a formal apology to the country of India. As you requested, we never returned to your embassy.

But I’ll save these stories–the tales of our sometimes wild adventures–for another day.

So, how about you? Can you remember someone who may have helped change the course of your life?

36 thoughts on “Flailing

  1. Monica, what a fantastic peak into your formative years! I loved it and you were and continue to be so pretty! What a lovely photo! I took my first creative writing class in college. I still remember our first writing assignment–What’s stronger, a cough or a sneeze! hee hee! Those were the days. Presently, I wish I had the opportunity to take a creative writing course–I read about the Erma Bombeck seminar and wanted to die, wishing I had been able to attend! Oh well. We must soldier on, sister. Luckily, we’re hungry enough to keep writing and staying inspired and really, isn’t that what really counts? Hugs! 🙂

    • Bella, I’ve heard about the Erma Bombeck seminar, too. Was it from Astra? Someone we know took it and raved about it. Sounds like it would be up our alley. My mother loved Erma and would always look forward to reading her column in the paper. Such memories. Yes, it’s true. We must soldier on. Hugs to you, my friend!

    • Renee, only once did I go to a reunion. Had to fly across the country to do so, and I went with a classmate who had to leave early. As such, I didn’t get much time to really reconnect with old friends. It’s all a blur.

  2. I remember those times well. Being popular with the right clothes was so important even the teachers seem to jump on board that train. I have to say The competitive nature of our chemistry class was a turning point for me. I found I understood it and didn’t care as much about the snobs and enjoyed actually feeling smart at something. I had the same guidance counselor my brother had 11 years prior and she would of had me doing nothing in my life. I remember Mrs. McHale and her threats of failure if I didn’t show up for her fashion show. My mom, having been a widow since I was 10 and my brother who was a cop and showed up for the bomb scares at our high school, showed me I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I became a nurse and loved it for many years. Thankfully, high school wasn’t the high point of my life and didn’t keep me from being who I am but made me want to care about people and treat them better while they faced the worse circumstances. You look terrific and I am so glad you became a writer because I love all your stories…

    • For the most part, I enjoyed a lot of it. Even more so when I buckled down and made the most of it. But my guidance counselor kept right on treating me as if I were dim-witted. She didn’t place much stock in me going to a good school. Told me to aim low and for a while, I did. I actually applied to all the schools she suggested. Luckily my brother, who was already attending Tufts, told me to apply to Brandeis. I did and that’s where I ended up.

      Thank you! I’m so glad you like my stories and comment regularly. I really appreciate that. 🙂

  3. Monica, what a delightful post. You look younger than high school in your picture, which now is probably a good thing, keeping you looking younger than your years, right? I don’t even want to remember high school — I was shy and uncomfortable, and most of my equally high-achieving friends abandoned me when I refused to take part in the “dark” activities they suddenly became interested in. I only “found” myself in college, when it didn’t seem weird for a girl to be capable. Most of my English teachers along the way, however, were suburb! Thanks for sharing this part of you with us.

    • You are so right, Debbie. I’ve spent a lifetime of looking younger than my years. Which, back then was a curse. Now, it’s a Godsend! 🙂 I’m glad college empowered you to be your best. Good for you, Debs!

  4. It’s always something or someone, yes? It’s why I practice my Academy Award’s speech. 🙂
    I never trusted myself to come out of the closet with my passion Gosh those early writing attempts make me sick they were so horrid, but I kept plugging away. I am so happy for Lynn and your moment of discovery. You make the world oh so brighter with your magical mind and gift of story.

    • Yes, Brenda, it seems there’s always someone to inspire us, helps us become better people. I hope along the way, that I’ve been able to help someone, too. Time will tell. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your Academy Award speech. I bet it’s great!

  5. My sophmore and senior English teacher taught me everything I know about punctuation and grammar. I use it every day in my work. He taught creative writing also. He rocked!

    • I’m telling you, Thoughtsy, my English teachers proved to be some of the best teachers around. I learned a lot of valuable lessons with them. Like how to write and how to spell, for starters. 😉

    • Thank you so much, Kim. I just want to hug you for saying such sweet things. Thank goodness, indeed. I’ll never forget Miss Stern. She stirred my passion for writing which hasn’t abated in all these years.

  6. Mrs. Wallace in 7th grade made it her personal mission to reach this painfully shy student who would sooner die than speak up in class. Don’t get me wrong; I wanted to speak up as I almost always knew the answers, but the fear of being judged for being “too smart,” “too stupid,” “too geeky” or frankly, too “anything made me physically ill. When Mrs. Wallace implemented a grading system based on oral participation, she forced me to speak aloud, because I feared more the thought of bringing home any grade less than an A to my parents.

    • That’s great, Jodi. It’s always good to remember those who gave us a “push” in life. Look at us. So many years later, and we still remember them and how they motivated us. Simply wonderful!

  7. Beautiful photo Monica, such lively eyes. You kept me in fits as always 🙂 I was average in school, until my English teacher Miss Augusta began to teach Enlish lit. It opened my eyes to a brand new world. I could not get enough of writing, analyzing and reading more and more. She changed my life, I think.

    • Thank you, MM. Glad I gave you a laugh. Thank goodness for English teachers, eh? Some of my favorite books were assigned in English class. Miss August sounds as inspiring as Miss Stern. All it took was a spark. What would we do without such teachers?

  8. I loved school, but I was shy and goofy, so I never quite fit in. I lived to please my teachers, though, and liked most of them. The one that’s made the most difference, though, was Mrs. Boyer. We clashed for an entire semester until her lessons finally clicked and I learned how to revise. She made me a writer.

    • Shary, isn’t wonderful, the feel you get when it finally clicks? I remember feeling that way about math. I felt so dense, which was why taking a longer version of each class really helped. Going at the slower pace really helped me see the light. Of course, now don’t even ask me to do geometry. Long forgotten. I’m so glad Mrs. Boyer set you on the path to writing. Send you lots of hugs!

  9. I was at the top of my class. That said I was amazed by the talent that surrounded me when I went back for a class reunion–there I re-met a female airline pilot, a female engineer, a documentary writer/director/producer for NG, another girl who was never in my math classes went on to teach Algebra for umpteen years, a female law professor who as I remember was absolutely crazy and silly in hs, and then one girl who seemed to be the shyest thing is now the “glue” that holds us together dedicated to updating class news monthly! It was a brief afternoon when we got together–I know they all have stories to tell.
    Thank you for telling us about Miss Stern and Lynn.

    • Sounds wonderful, Georgette! How nice to have gone to school with so many high achievers, and to have been at top of your class, too. I was definitely a late bloomer when it came to my studies.

  10. I’m one of those who didn’t struggle in school. In fact the grades I’m proudest of are all D’s because I had to work so hard to get them. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t need some saving of my own. It’s so nice to remember the people who throw you the lifeline that makes all the difference. Thanks for the reminder.

    • Lisa, the fascinating thing is often the ones who throw the lifeline don’t even realize it. They’re just being themselves and doing what comes natural. Yet in their own way, they end up passing on this gift. I truly feel lucky because of them.

  11. Mr. Lickey our resident hippie and free thinker, served up political thought, comparative religion, debate and banned books! He taught me to think and encouraged me to think beyond social norms. He also lost his job in my third year, gad I adored him as did most of the student body. He was tough but fair. He was funny (made terrible jokes). He was passionate about learning. He demanded we show up and pay attention. He stood up for us. He took us on field trips, to see our government at work.

    He was what teachers are supposed to be. Many parents despised him.

  12. Super post Monica.

    A really nice yearbook picture as well.

    Yes it’s surprising how just one or two people can inspire you to great things and to stretch your imagination and expand your horizon.

    It’s just a matter of realising they are there and what they are offering even if they may not realise it themselves.

    I had somebody inspire me when I was younger and I have made brief mention of them in my blog but that story is not for here.

    I must admit I would like to have done better in school but in the secondary modern system we had here at the time that was not easy, and these days it’s no better. There seems to be a theory going round now that if enough people appear to fail, instead of encouraging them to do better you just drop the standards low enough so that more appear to pass and the problem appears to go away.

    There is a culture these days that in anything where there are winners and losers you don’t tell the people who have lost that they have done so instead you just tell everybody that there are no winners and losers. This means the winners don’t get praise and the losers don’t get encouragement.

    I read an article a couple of days ago on line that over there in America you could for the first time shortly have a generation that are not better educated than the previous one, if that is true then it is a tragedy and the result of letting the do gooders who want to appease everybody win.

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