Monday, December 25, 2017

A Writer: A short-short story about doing what you love.

It was his second year of teaching kindergarten, his first in a new school. He remembered last year’s first day: Twenty 5-year-olds, most bounding, a few slinking. "So much energy, so many needs. They didn’t train me for this in ed school.”

But it worked out well enough that he was looking forward to his second year, even though it was in a grittier school.

It was Sep 3, 1985, two days before the first day of school. He walked into the classroom where he’d be teaching kindergarten. And there was an orchard of Apple 2e computers. He wouldn’t have expected that his first encounter with The Computer would be in a kindergarten but that was fortunate. A bit technophobic, it was reassuring to think, “If kindergartners can use it, maybe I can.” On one desk, he spotted a software box :“Bank Street Writer.” The blurb explained that it was a children’s “word-processing program” that enables users to erase, insert, and move text far more easily than on a typewriter—No white-out, no need to retype pages.

By nature, motivated by speed, such time-saving drove him to sit at the computer instead of, for example, hanging posters about animals, colors, and the alphabet. Following the software’s instruction booklet, he put the floppy disk into the drive whereupon the screen made clear where you type and how you erase, insert, cut, and paste. That evening, he bought an Apple 2e and a copy of Bank Street Writer, and thus his addiction to writing began.

Confidently, perhaps hubristically, he thought, “If word processing makes writing this easy, why don’t I go all the way and use it to write a book?" And indeed, his first book, “What I Learned From My Kindergartners” was written on that children’s word processor and sold for a $5,000 advance to a family-run publisher.

Over the next 20 years, he made enough from his articles and two books to legitimately call his writing a sideline. At that point, with 20 years in as a public school teacher, he was eligible to take early retirement with one of those generous pensions that school teachers are among the few to still get. “Thank you union. Thank you taxpayer.”

While he’d get additional money for additional years, the golden handcuffs now felt looser, indeed escapable. He felt he still did a decent job of teaching but wasn’t quite as patient nor as inspired to create compelling lessons that met the needs of his classes' ever wider range of students. “Should I quit and become a full-time writer? A fresher teacher might do a better job. I tried changing grades but that didn’t really solve. I might feel more satisfied if I were writing full time instead of blowing 20 kids’ noses and teaching diphthongs, digraphs, and pre-geometry. But there’s a reason the words ‘starving' and 'writer’ so often adjoin. And very few writers get full benefits and a pension.”

In the end, the slogan, “Do what you love and the money will follow” prevailed. Alas, his timing was terrible. Although his writing productivity and reputation grew, his income from writing was flat and eventually flatlined. The rise of citizen journalists, pirated book downloads, and declining newspaper ad revenues thanks to Craigslist’s free ads—slowly morphed his writing sideline into a writing hobby. The final nail was when the Huffington Post gave him an ultimatum, “The world has changed.  A million people would kill to write for us. The pay is zero. Take it or leave it.” So that sanctimonious publication, frequently railing against capitalism, was using one of capitalism’s darker aspects to save a pittance so Arianna Huffington could get even richer.

He continued writing even though it was without pay. That was because he could now write what he wanted and if a publisher didn’t want his work, he’d post the articles on his blog and self-publish books on Amazon. That freedom spawned contrarian work unpublishable in today’s censorious publishing world.

But after two years of seeing his savings decline and, at age 50, envisioning needing to support himself for another 30+ years, he took the additional courses now required to reinstate his teaching license. And on September 5, 2017, he opened the door to Room 112 at Jefferson Elementary School and sat at his desk contemplating the next 20 years of 20 five-year-olds, bright-eyed with anticipation of school’s wonders.

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