Thanks to a post on Writing Wranglers and Warriors for inspiring this. How far should a parent go when dealing with a child’s homework? When I was in elementary school, Dad often helped me with math. Instead of doing it for me, he talked through the problems with me, and we figured out the answers together. When he drove a taxi in Tucson, Arizona, he often gave me extra problems by telling me he took a customer so many miles at so much per mile and asked me to calculate the fare. He said I was good at math, but I hated it all the same.
In high school, I took a recent U.S. history class, and since some of the material wasn’t in an accessible format, Dad often read it to me. Since he grew up during the time period covered in the class, he made it more interesting by sharing his own memories. As part of the class, we were assigned to interview a senior citizen about life during World War II. I took a tape recorder to Grandma’s house, and we had an interesting chat about her life as a housewife while Dad was growing up. When I got home, I listened to our recorded conversation and wrote the report. I thought maybe I wanted to pursue journalism as a career.
However, I’m ashamed to say that I let my mother squelch any idea of me writing professionally. Being an English teacher at SheridanCollege for most of my high school experience, she didn’t just proofread what I typed for spelling, punctuation, and grammar, she often rewrote my papers. Like any kid glad of not having to do homework, I let her do it. At no time did I ever say, “Who’s paper is this, mine or yours?”
Of course I couldn’t go off and do something else while she rewrote my papers. I had to sit there and listen while she typed and verbalized what she was writing. Still, it was better than doing it myself.
I finally got to the point where I didn’t bother trying to write the papers myself. I told Mother the topic. If research was necessary, we went to the library together. She read me the material then wrote the paper. One day, she kept me home from school so I could be there when she finished writing a science paper on cancer that was due the following day. I must admit I learned quite a bit about the topic, although I didn’t write the paper.
When I started as a freshman at SheridanCollege, I took English classes from her colleagues, not her. I figured she might be embarrassed if I handed in compositions she’d written so I again tried my hand at writing a paper. It was an essay on Shirley Jackson’s story, “The Lottery.” I went to the library with a volunteer reader to do some research on the author. She read the material on tape for me, and when I got home, I listened to the articles and composed the paper. I was pretty proud of that paper until Mother took one look at it, put a fresh sheet in the typewriter, and started anew. I then realized that Mother was ashamed to have her colleagues read her daughter’s writing which was inferior in her eyes. Maybe this is why I didn’t become serious about writing until after she passed.
I think Mother started to see the error of her ways when the mother of one of her students who lived in Sheridan called her to ask about papers she assigned. Danny was in the law enforcement program, and I hoped he could get a job with the department in Sheridan so his mother could write his crime reports for him.
I definitely saw the folly of allowing my mother to write my papers when I transferred to RockyMountainCollege in Billings, Montana, my junior year. I felt lost, as I sat at my desk in my dorm room with my typewriter and a tape recorder with a cassette containing numerous articles recorded by volunteer readers to write a paper on Ann Hutchinson for a history class. I could have taken the bus home on weekends and let her write the essay, but I think we both knew I needed to do this myself. Besides, Mother didn’t know any of the faculty at Rocky so she wouldn’t have been embarrassed by her daughter’s papers. To make along story short, the paper wasn’t half bad, and I think I got a passing grade but don’t remember.
I got better and better, as I gained more confidence. My best paper during that time was about Duke Ellington for a jazz appreciation class. It started like this. “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.” Even before I took writing seriously, I knew the value of a good opening line. I was so proud of that paper that I mailed it home to my parents when I got it back with an A+. For once, Mother agreed it was a good paper, despite the “ain’t” in the opening sentence. Dad liked it so much that he showed it to a friend who taught jazz at SheridanCollege, and he loved it. If I’d saved the paper, I would post it here.
Despite this encouragement, I decided to go into music therapy instead of writing. However, now that Mother has been gone for over ten years, I’ve published two books: a novel, We Shall Overcome, and a poetry collection, How to Build a Better Mousetrap: Recollections and Reflections of a Family Caregiver. Neither of these are best-sellers but so what? I doubt my mother would have been inclined to rewrite them if she were still alive today.