Failures, A Resume

This is from a writing assignment we had for this arts & entrepreneurship class at Penn. 

Math and Baseball
Beyond basic algebra, I’ve never excelled at math; have always been more of a reader than a calculator.  Words make sense to me and numbers do not. In math class, I did well only when we worked on logic problems.  In my junior year in high school, I had to take Algebra II with Coach Nichols, so called because he also coached junior and varsity baseball. I happened to also be a bat girl for the baseball team because I had a crush on Marc Dunbar, one of the players who bore a striking resemblance to Michael J. Fox.
            Though I studied for the mid-term exam for Algebra II, when I got into class and looked down at the equations, any and all the necessary formulas fled my brain.  I glanced at the girl sitting next to me, Maria deSanto, a sophomore who was a whiz at math. She already had half the answers written on the page. She was also sitting in such a way that I could clearly see what she had written. I copied it all, as fast as I could. When I was almost finished, I happened to look up and see Coach Nichols, with his oval, owlish glasses, looking right at me. I ducked my head and finished the last problem on my own.  I knew though, in the pit of my stomach, that I’d been caught cheating.
            I couldn’t sleep that night. I waited for the phone to ring, for my mom to come into my bedroom and tell me I’d been given detention, or expelled from class. I imagined Coach Nichols calling me out in front of the whole class, holding up my paper, inked in red, and letting me know I was no longer welcome to help with the baseball team (henceforth, there went my dreams of marrying Marc Dunbar).
            The next day before class, Coach Nichols told me that I would be moving seats. He didn’t say why; he didn’t have to. He put me in the front row, right by the corner of his desk. When I got my exam back, I saw I’d gotten credit for the one problem I did on my own, correctly. The rest, the ones I’d copied, were crossed out. My grade: “F.”
            I already knew that cheating was wrong—so, it’s not that I learned not to cheat. But I did learn that you didn’t need to shame the cheater, not by much and I learned that not all adults needed to exert their power in the same way to make their point. He seemed to know that I would learn my lesson, and I appreciated that he didn’t make it worse by stopping class right at that moment or calling my parents or pulling me off the team. The punishment fit the crime, and it was enough.

The Kennel

In college, I got a job working at a dog kennel. I filled out the application and was hired on the spot. Even as I shook the woman’s hand, I heard the low keening sound of a dog from somewhere nearby. She told me that the job was difficult. I told her that I really loved animals, and could handle it. I asked no questions, because I already knew that I would love the job. It wasn’t a shelter where you’d have to pass cages of forgotten pets on death row. It was a place where people boarded their dogs while they jetted away for long weekends).  I ignored my own nagging worries—about the quickness of the hire, the lack of reference checks, and, of course, the morbid looing noises on the periphery.
When I showed up for work later that week, I was introduced to Margo, the woman who would train me for the day. She sized me up and said, “You shoulda worn jeans.” She turned down the hallway, and gestured for me to follow. We went into a long and dismal room with cement walls, cages on either side, and two troughs next to the doors of the cages. From there, I watched and listened as she mechanically explained , in a monotone voice, how to complete the subsequent tasks: 1. Clean dog poop out with a broom; 2. Clean dog poop out with a shovel; 3. Clean dog poop out with a heavy duty garden hose. I believe there were one or two other ways illustrated, but, at a certain point, I stopped listening and instead watched my fantasies of frolicking with friendly collies and throwing rubber balls to tail-wagging retrievers disappear down the drain. 
I didn’t go back for my next shift, a result I’m sure Margo anticipated. I bet she’d trained more than her share of one day employees. I also didn’t return for my paycheck. The next time I applied for a job, I asked a lot of questions, and not just from the people who interviewed me, but also from others I knew who had some association with the company. I wanted to be sure I had a realistic notion of what I was getting into before diving in headlong.  

The Entirety of My Twenties

So many options to choose from and so little time…

I spent most of my twenties in pursuit of unavailable boys. I choose the term “boys” deliberately—these were not men; they were a subset of the male species whose main goal in life seemed to be to continue the party they’d started in high school or college. Most suffered from the Peter Pan complex; they didn’t want to grow up; they didn’t want to have responsibility; they wanted to stay unencumbered by commitments including jobs, girlfriends, or even houseplants. And yet I continued to be drawn to these same types again and again. On the one hand, I admired their resistance to conformity (i.e. inability to hold 9 to 5 employment), their focus on pursuing pleasure above all else (i.e. embarking on a lifetime addiction to drugs and/or alcohol), and their insistence on remaining free (i.e. not showing up on time for dates, not even really making dates). Yes, sure, it meant that they would never say “I love you” or remember my birthday, but it also meant they would write little bits of poetry on cocktail napkins and keep me in a constant state of anxiety, wondering if there were some magic way to get them to behave; imagining that I just had to find the right way to act or say the exact right thing, and I could change the course of the relationship.
It wasn’t until well into my thirties, as more and more of my friends evaporated into a marriage vortex, that it dawned on me that the boys I pursued basically left me dog-paddling in place. And it wasn’t the fault of the boys---I was the biggest problem. Most of them didn’t claim to be interested in long-term relationships. In fact, they often clearly stated that they wanted the opposite by saying unambiguous things like, “I’m not really into, like, living in the same place for more than six months…”  Or, “Yeah, so, I’ll probably be leaving to study mosquitos in Africa sometime next week or maybe going skiing with my bro.” Or, “My last girlfriend…Let’s see…Was when I was in third grade.”  I had to learn to choose better—to not approach the wild-haired poet in the corner smoking a hookah, but to consider the man sitting across from me at work—the one whom arrived early to staff meetings and sometimes surprised me with a mocha latte with skim (just the way I like it). To pick men, not boys.  


With writing, it's easy to think of yourself as failing every day. I try to take a day or two a month to send out submissions, in a flurry and then, I tend to forget what's gone out, until I get the email from the literary journal that reads, "Thank you for submitting your work, but we do not like it enough to publish it at this time..." But! I almost always get a sentence that reads something like, Please consider sending us more of your work in the future, which I take to mean that, while the piece I sent wasn't a good fit or wasn't up to what they're looking for, they like my writing enough to encourage me to submit again.  Even getting the rejection is somewhat gratifying as it reminds me that I'm still trying. I haven't given up on writing. And one truth I've found about publishing--one that seems obvious but isn't---is that you have to keep at it and be persistent, you have to send your work out to a lot of places and you can't let rejection stop you. The story I wrote that won the Zoetrope award was rejected by three other places, including Tin House, though they too wrote an positive rejection note. So, I keep at it, and I revise along the way, hoping with each attempt to make the story better, tighter, more vivid, more publishable.


Leigh Ann said…
If I had a literary journal, I would publish you!

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