He was a non-traditional student, about 10 years older and I think pursuing an undergraduate degree. I had met him through PACT, but I believe the first real opportunity to talk happened on the statewide retreat. He wasn’t Catholic, but he was interested in learning about the faith.
I remember being with a small group of people at the retreat, and then slowly others broke off for other things. And it was just the two of us. I wasn’t super comfortable around him, but I couldn’t just leave him. He seemed so alone, and I felt bad for him.
At some point during the one week program, I had a chance to sit down with one of the two instructors and talk about my writing. A one-on-one discussion. I walked away from that meeting with encouragement from him that I had real potential in pursuing poetry. Certainly some areas could use improvement, but he reinforced that my gut instincts were good.
During the second half of senior year, I learned of a one week summer program for creative writing for high school students called Write Moves. I wasn’t sure if I would be allowed to apply since I was graduating, but even as a rising college freshman I was eligible to attend. I was one of 8 students accepted into the program.
This was my first big road trip by myself. I drove independently from South Carolina to Georgia College and State University, about 2.5 hours away using written directions. This was before having a GPS system in the car.
Along with participating in the high ropes course, a major aspect of my experience with LifeTeen and the youth group was pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone. This happened on a regular basis during 11th and 12th grades through lectoring at Mass.
One of the adult leaders made the rounds among the teens one night seeking recruits to be readers. I got guilted into signing up. Not because my friends jumped up to agree and I risked being left out. That wasn’t it at all. Hardly anyone stepped forward, and for some reason I felt responsible to fill in since no one else did. The people pleaser in me couldn’t resist the request from an adult. Or maybe it actually indicates some degree of leadership skills, taking on an undesirable task instead of waiting for someone else to do it.
Ellen may have been bold with her verbal communication and more direct than me, but it was the kind of push I needed. You can’t always wait for things to happen; often times you have to take matters into your own hands and act to bring the results you want.
The dawn of senior year meant Ellen became our basketball team captain. She earned that title for sure. Like many others, she could see my potential on the court, and so she pushed me to be better. She pushed me to be more of a presence in the paint, more aggressive, instead of being intimidated. She pushed me to take ownership of my ability. We were the “twin towers” under the basket, and we learned a lot about teamwork. You can’t be a successful team with a “one-man show,” and senior year certainly brought out more opportunities for working together.
When high school began, I definitely was not ready for the high energy of Ellen. She was all about introducing herself to everyone and asking questions. There didn’t seem to be an off switch. For a major introvert like myself, it was off-putting in the beginning.
People who tend to be very loud and vocal end up getting on my nerves. It’s far too easy to write off their energy as annoying, though, so I have to be careful about that. It just takes time to understand where they’re coming from. (I’m sure many people initially think I’m not interested in what’s happening around me simply because I don’t say much at first.)
Seventh grade was the start of asking as many people as possible to sign my yearbook. I don’t know what prompted it because it had never been a thing before. But I asked friends, teammates, coaches, teachers, people I barely knew, people who rode the same bus as me. I knew a lot of people’s names but that doesn’t mean I knew them well or they had any idea of who I was.
It wasn’t a popularity contest of trying to get the most signatures or messages. That may be hard to believe because in high school especially I had people writing over ads and I even taped in blank sheets of paper just to create space. I brought my tenth grade yearbook with me to Governor’s School and asked as many people as I could to sign it. I received quite a number of weird looks from people as they reluctantly wrote something down.
But it was never a popularity contest. It was deeper than that. I was trying to cobble together some sense of what people thought of me. What was their impression? How am I actually viewed?
I’m not sure where the phrase “show me, don’t tell me” first originated. I think it was through exposure to creative writing exercises and other writing efforts. But I took that to heart. I took that seriously. And in many ways that influenced my approach to poetry writing.
You don’t want to just say “she was upset”; that doesn’t tell you much. But instead you describe the used tissues scattered on the bed, the box laying nearby, how her eyes are puffy. You acknowledge the remnants of a bowl of ice cream. You describe the girl curled up on a bed, clutching tight to a pillow or stuffed bear. These images offer more details, they help tell the story. She probably didn’t just screw up a pop quiz; it’s more likely that she had a fight with her boyfriend or they broke up.
I was much more interested in showing the details of a story and describing the scene versus being straightforward. I still had trouble balancing what was described and how much to describe rather than saying things outright. I often went overboard on the descriptions and imagery, especially early on, but I was trying to find my style, trying to figure out what worked. How much detail do you really have to give?
So, I mentioned before how I had trouble with toilet training. Sticker rewards and praise didn’t help with the learning process on this one. Or even like episodes of Full House where Michelle was bribed with cookies to really focus on learning this self-regulation behavior. That happened, right?
I don’t remember specific experiences of trying to reach the bathroom. Thankfully. But trying to get my brain to give me appropriate signals wasn’t working.
I do remember using special underwear that had an electronic device. I believe there was a little pocket in the underwear for a sensor. That was connected by wire to an alarm that attached to my shirt. The sensor would detect that slightest hint of moisture and the alarm would sound to indicate the need to use the bathroom. (Here is one website resource.)
I look at that list of sensory issues and think “How did my family manage not to kill each other?”
But I also look at my childhood and think that it was relatively normal. We had fun. There were games, movie nights, camping trips and other typical activities. It wasn’t an awful childhood. I am very much blessed. But I did have extra challenges and obstacles to overcome that most of my classmates didn’t have to deal with.