Why writers become writers is an age-old question. I have been writing professionally since age 16. I was one of those all-around students in high school, acing the sciences and mathematics almost as easily as the liberal arts. Choose computers, my mother suggested. It was the hot field in the early 1980s. I chose writing. Why? My career path, in part, stems from several years of my childhood when I was one of the few Jews in a small rural Ohio town. Below is part one of a two-part explanation. Yes, I’m a writer. I need two parts to explain my passion.
I sat there embarrassed, confused, and silent. A woman had just walked into my fourth-grade classroom in my new school and stuck a series of bearded figures on a felt board. She talked about Jesus and his disciples. Then she led the class in Christian hymns.
After school, my middle brother and I ran into our house and recounted the same story about this woman who taught us about Christianity in our public school classrooms. We were Jews, the only Jews in our rural Ohio school system in 1974. My parents protested the existence of the religious classes, but school officials refused to eliminate the practice. So, once a week, my teacher escorted me to the school library and told me to wait until the half-hour class ended.
Isolation. Ostracism. Experiencing both after my family’s move from western New York to rural Ohio set the stage for my becoming a writer. I ached to protest in some way, but did not know how. The religious classes ended when I reached seventh grade, but the sensation that I was different than my classmates continued. A youth minister roamed the cafeteria during lunch recruiting members for a Christian youth group. Pastors led prayer at school Christmas and Easter assemblies. Classmates questioned my religious beliefs, which were shaky at best. At age 12, I dropped out of Sunday school mostly out of boredom; I was tired, too, of the weekly hour-long drives to our temple. I identified myself as a Jew. I knew little about what that meant.
“If you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to go to @#$%,” a classmate said.
“I don’t believe in Heaven, either,” I responded.
“But what happens when you die?” I again sat embarrassed, confused, and silent.
When the school brought pastors and a Christian band in for the annual Easter assembly, I usually slipped out of the auditorium. I grabbed my flute from my locker and went into a practice room and tried to heed my flute teacher’s advice as I shut out the rest of the world. Breathe, breathe, relax. Then play each song as if it were an unfolding story. I discovered beautiful stories in Mozart’s Concerto for D Major, in Debussy’s haunting Syrinx, and in Gluck’s Menuet and Spirit Dance. Well into high school, I thought of becoming a classical flutist. Something held me back. I could invent stories to go with the music, but wondered whether I could ever meet the composer’s intent. I wanted to create music, but lacked the talent and natural ear to compose.
TO BE CONTINUED. Read Part 2 here and on tomorrow’s Jewish Muse blog.