Last week I was perusing the DVD's at my local library when I came across the 30th Anniversary Edition of "Roots." Remembering the first time I watched the mini-series, I was eager to revisit the multi-generational story of Alex Haley's family traced to Kunte Kinte, his grandfather six generations back, who was captured in Africa and sold into slavery. Mesmerized by the multitude of ways the writing and acting has stood the test of time, I also had visceral memories of watching the show as a child and how it positively influenced me on a very profound level. Lessons that, to this day, continue to evolve as life brings me ever-changing opportunities to deepen my awareness.
I was thinking last night that roots are not only through bloodlines, but also heart lines as well. I became the person I am today through the influence of a host of people, many of whom I write about in the "Planting the Seeds" chapter in my memoir. Not all family members, their presence in my childhood modeled for me a love of reading, writing, and language that I am proud to embody today.
So here are my writing "roots"...and long over-due thanks to those who helped me carve out a path to the life I'm now creating.
Victor Miller, maternal grandfather
Kudos to Pa-Pal for creating his own language full of babbling that often bubbled over with my name so that I'd stay interested enough to try and figure out what the story was about. He kept my sisters and me enthralled with a host of "Pa-Pal Adventures." And I loved to listen to him read us stories from start to finish and then back for another round. From Pa-pal I learned that re-reading a book allows me to enjoy it that much more!
John Ingersoll, paternal grandfather
Granddaddy's rec room had shelves and shelves of books from Shakespeare to Andy Rooney. Whenever we'd come for a visit (after sitting on his lap for a while), I'd peruse his vast library and always learn something new. It was from Granddaddy that I developed a love of all things diverse and expansive. I am overjoyed to have inherited his leather-bound copies of the sonnets and several Shakespearean plays...along with his appreciation for wit and dry humor.
An avid reader, Mom always had a book (or two) in progress and filled our family room with stacks of magazines ranging from Reader's Digest to Tennis. From Better Homes and Gardens to Family Circle. She taught me how to use her old Smith Corona when I was in second grade and encouraged my love of typing by giving me boxes of note cards and old envelopes. A word-enthusiast, Mom can do a crossword faster than anyone I know and always knows how to find the right word for the right occasion. From her I learned the didactic use of vernacular (and even called her once to define those words in context).
Joyce Kurtz-Yarnell, 7th Grade Language Arts teacher
Editor for Open Road: a life worth waiting for
If you've read my memoir, you already know how influential Joyce has been in my life, both as an avid lover of metaphor and as an eagle-eye editor. From her very first lesson, she engaged me in the inner exploration of how books can open doors for self-awareness and integration. No wonder I was blessed to have her serendipitously enter my life as I began to write the first draft of what would become Open Road.
Mr. John Beck (second row, first picture), English teacher, freshman year of high school
All hail to Mr. Beck for his stringent teaching methods that had his students memorizing parts of speech, lists of prepositions (I can still name them all) and then reciting them verbatim. Mr. Beck would ask, "How long will you remember that, Miss Ingersoll?" The proper response was, "'Til the day I die, sir."
We read To Kill a Mockingbird and I was enthralled by the way Mr. Beck made Boo Radley come alive as he read passages to us. He taught me how to diagram sentences until my eyes blurred. But the best moment came the day after winter break when Mr. Beck said to us in his ominous monotone, "I have spent the better part of the year teaching you all the rules of grammar." He lifted a brow mischievously. "Now I will teach you how to break them for effect."
To this day, every single time I sit down to write, I thank Mr. Beck for his attention to detail and his ability to set my writing maverick's heart afire.
Mrs. Frankel, English and Speech teacher, Sophomore year of high school
Mrs. Frankel taught me the meaning of "stalwart" when I took her speech class as the only girl in a sea of Junior and Senior football players who wanted nothing more than to sleep after lunch instead of working on their oratory skills. Hilarious and often anti-establishment, Mrs. Frankel introduced me to Shakespeare and encouraged me to embrace the idea that being another version of "Kate" in "The Taming of the Shrew" was something to proudly celebrate.
"No one can bend you to their will unless you let them," she often reminded me. Wise words to ponder as I venture into the publishing world this year.
Miss Elizabeth Papps (top row, third picture), Honors English teacher, Senior year of high school
Miss Papps began every 8:00 AM class with open-ended journaling which taught me how to keep writing even when I was stuck. When I had nothing to say. When I was frustrated with syntax and jargon. When I didn't feel like writing.
She told us on the first day of school, "At the end of this quarter all of you will receive a 'C,' so don't worry about failure." I was used to getting "A's" in English, so this horrified me. I soon learned that the "C" was a generous gift as she was uncommonly hard on all of us in her honors class. But her diligence in making me work harder helped me clean up some awful writing habits and earn a year's worth of college English in the process when I took the A.P. test in the spring.
I still have some of the papers I wrote that year which earned me a "5" (the equivalent to an "A") and am more proud of them than anything else I accomplished in high school. Miss Papps passed away a few years ago, and I'm sorry I was never able to thank her for her profound influence in my life. But I imagine she's still out there somewhere encouraging others to better themselves in order to better their prospects in life and within their own spirits.
My first grade class, Greenwood Elementary 1994-95
If a teacher is blessed to have a magical class in their career, I can't imagine it would be better than this group of wise and winsome souls I had the pleasure of teaching twenty years ago. They were so sharp and savvy, I had to throw out everything I knew about instruction and discover new ways of encouraging them to "show what they know" and continue developing their skills as lifetime learners.
Oddly enough, it was this class that silently revealed the awareness that I didn't want to spend my whole career as a classroom teacher because, through their influence, I was able to tap into my own spirit and began writing short stories. It would take four more years to find the courage to move into the unknown and work toward a career as a novelist and writer, but these kids set me on the path to freedom.
On the last day of school, I asked them to tell me things they had learned that year and once everyone had their turn, Kaitlin asked, "What have you learned, Miss Ingersoll?"
"Oh, too much to say now," I said, tears standing in my eyes. "I learned so much from all of you."
"I know," she said gently. "We taught you how to listen to your heart."
Kinga, my dear friend at Esalen Institute, 2007
Kinga and I met in Big Sur in the summer of 2006 and spent a wonderful Wednesday night chatting in lodge about writing and the process I had endured in trying to find an agent but to no avail. She was captivated when I told her the plotline for my first novel and encouraged me to continue trying.
"You're meant to be published, Katie," she smiled. "Just give it time."
"I've given it over a decade," I said sadly.
"Time doesn't matter when it's real," she replied.
Thanks for helping me keep it real, Kinga...then, now, and always.
All the children in my life, past, present, and future
You're the ones who've modeled for me the joy of being alive. Of telling the truth. Of giving me the opportunity to live with integrity so that I can write from the heart. You've listened to me read thousands of books with expression. You laughed out loud when I read Junie B. Jones. Cried when I read the final pages of Charlotte's Web. And encouraged me to keep honing my skills as a storyteller and novelist.
Each one of you has been a gift and a blessing and I hope to pass on a love of reading. A love of writing. And a love of language....so that you can live out your own story with grace and hope and truth.
May you live it well.