Toward the end of my sophomore English class -- we're talking high school -- the teacher sidled up to my desk one day and made the sort of demand that I've been ignoring all my life.
"You are going to be on the newspaper staff next year."
That's all she said.
She was trying to steer my life. And I liked her well enough as an English teacher. But not well enough to take any orders. Funny thing was that she knew. She knew I wasn't going to walk away. I was on the staff the next year. The next year, too. Hell, now it's near three decades later and I'm still a newspaper man.
Truth is -- and I'm big on truth -- that I could bless or blame her for that.
Of course, I joke that I could've been an engineering major and a wealthy man today. I wonder what would've happened if I'd joined the Army. I suspect that if I stuck with my 18-year-old plan of being a forest ranger, that I would've been the next Edward Abbey -- at least in my own mind.
I could blame her for turning me on to newspapers. I mean, hell, look where I'm at today. Look where newspapers are at today. Neither one is very pretty. (If you're not keeping track, I had to make the switch to the website after my copy editing career of 19 years was consolidated and shipped off to Florida. The other day I got a letter from my employer. It was mailed from Ohio.)
But let's be honest here. I wasn't going to be an engineer. I wasn't going to be a soldier. I wasn't going to be a forest ranger. I was going to be a journalist because I was fucking good at it. No other career would've tolerated the wildness that emerged in my 20s and the wild attitude that followed. Being good at what I did was my free ticket to be as bad as I could. That teacher wouldn't have believed it. I was one of her good kids.
After I won my first Charles Murphy Award -- what amounts to the copy editor of the year in the state of Texas -- I sent that teacher a nice letter. I told her where I was, how I was doing and how much I appreciated her. I never heard back. Don't know if it reached her or if it struck her the wrong way.
No matter. Truth is truth. She knew. I know. She looked at me as a 15-year-old and she saw -- despite my irreverence, despite my struggles -- that I was the sort of fellow who could make a job out of working with words.
So I'll bless her for her benediction. It's been a hell of a ride. Folks that know me at work today wouldn't have believed that passion I had. And if I've held on to Act 1 of my career a few years too long, that's my own damn fault.
Connie Warner died this week after a battle of cancer. I didn't know about it until it was nearly over. My classmates have come together and stepped forward in a way that leaders do and I'm thankful for them, too. High school seems very long ago. There are whole stretches that I don't remember that clearly -- recall what said about my 20s?
But I haven't forgotten what I owe Mrs. Warner.
And I'm just one of many. God bless her.
Hey, Mrs. Warner. You weren't the first or the last to tell me that I had to learn the rules before I could break them. But you told me more than anyone else.
I learned the rules. I learned the rules.