I went from an eighth grade class of 14 to a freshman class of 400 in a school where I knew no one. Fortunately, mom knew how hard a time I had adjusting to new places and pushed for me to take speech and typing in summer school ‘to get them out of the way’. I got used to getting up at 5:00 in the morning and taking the bus over to the other side of the island, to speaking in front of people and persuading people with words “Sharks should not be persecuted…after all we’re swimming in their lunch box…”, and to learning how to make friends.
So by the time I got to the first day of school at Punahou, I wasn’t quite as scared as I had been at the beginning of summer. All of us trooped outside to the grass after homeroom to listen to the Dean’s Address. It was the only place all of us could fit. Win Healy, Academy Principal, was a wonderful man, an English teacher. He was eloquent and careful with his words. Two of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a writer came from him. One of the things I learned came from that address. It was the first time I heard him speak.
On that day, alternately cloudy and sunny as days in Manoa often are, Mr. Healy welcomed the class of 2000 to the school. (That in itself was kind of mind-blowing, my first insight into the bigger picture of the passage of time. When they graduate, I thought to myself, I’ll be 36 and the captain of my own aircraft carrier. Who knew then how different everything would be for me by 2000?). After the expected welcomes, he told us a story about two brothers being observed by scientists to see what their reactions would be to various stimuli. (Many apologies, Mr. Healy, I can in no way tell it as well as you did, but I’ll give it my best shot).
One brother was put in a room full of toys and the other in a room knee deep in horse poop. The room of toys was amazing, with everything you could possibly want: the newest hot wheels and transformers (the ones that were still made of metal), bicycles, radios, even an 8-Track player (for those of you born after the nineties, that’s a plastic box into which you put another plastic box with a spool magnetic tape that will, through the magic of high technology, play music…). Contrariwise, the room full of horse poop was, well, a room full of horse poop.
But as the scientists watched, they saw the brother in the room of toys get madder and madder, and in general, turn into a complete brat. The transformer was Optimus Prime and he wanted Jazz. The bicycle was blue and he wanted a red one. Nothing was good enough, so he sat in the middle of the room and threw a tantrum. The scientists were completely confused, having expected oohs and ahhs of wonder and a completely happy child.
Then they observed the other brother. Instead of finding a boy trying desperately to keep out of the poop and crying because of the smell and the ick, they found him madly, yet systematically, digging through the poop. Finally, stumped as to the boy’s actions, the scientist called in on the intercom to ask exactly what the boy was doing. The boy replied “Well, with all the horse poop in here, there must be a pony somewhere.”
All of us dutifully laughed at Mr. Healy’s punch line, but he went on before we were through snickering at the bad joke. He told us that, while it was meant to be a funny story, there was a lesson in it too. He told us that it was our choice, each and every day to decide whether we would be coming to school, or whether we were sent to school. Those words moved me more than anything else in his speech.
For the first time, I actually sat down and thought about the fact that my parents cared enough to spend their hard-earned money on paying for my education. They could have sent me to public school and spent that money on things for themselves, but they didn’t. I took a fresh look at all the rules that I used to heartily resent: no reading for pleasure without reading something they chose, no playing outside until studying and doing my homework and chores and yard work were done.
I thought of everything else my parents were adamant about in my daily routine to make sure I could pass the tests to get accepted into Punahou, about how they saved and worked two full time jobs to pay for that four years of education. I took Mr. Healy’s words to heart and made a choice on that morning not to be sent to school. I chose to come to school every day, and to put my heart and soul into it, and I never looked back.
So why is that choice an important thing for writing? I know I’ve said that writing for me is like breathing. I can’t not do it. But writing as a career is also a job, a second full-time job truth be told. There is always a danger with something that is required of you. The danger that makes you go grudgingly down the path, to grump and grouse and avoid, to be yanked down the road like a recalcitrant donkey and resent everything about that unseen force that’s pulling your strings.
Now granted Positivity is one of my Strengths, but on that August morning so very long ago, even though I had not a single clue what a Strength was, Mr. Healy taught me to walk on the sunny side of the street, and to use that positivity for a purpose.
Would I rather watch a movie or play hooky rather than go to work or edit or proofread tomorrow? Hell yes I would. I’m not a thickhead. But work (or writing, or school) needs to be done to get me where I want to be, to my chosen horizon, and Mr. Healy taught me to do my best, and get down to it with a sense of humor, a wise crack, and the sheer awesomeness of the world we live in.
When I make a choice to recognize just how beautiful it is to wake up breathing every morning, I remember that it’s the little things, the details, that make writing real…the sunrises, the smell of the roses, the dew on a spider web in the first ray of sunshine. I couldn’t convey the wonder of all of those moments, or that sense of awe to a reader if I didn’t cherish each and every one of them, or if I were busy sitting in a corner.
Heck, last week, I couldn’t help getting goofy with amazement for near a half hour when I stopped and realized that I was writing back and forth with a lovely Scotsman in Abu Dhabi (Hello @SeumasGallacher! Hope you and the minders are well!) in real time on a phone that wasn’t connected to a house, or even bigger than my hand. How cool is that? In Abu Dhabi, on my lunch break! When I went to Wiesbaden, it took ten days for mail to get from there to Hawaii, and another ten for Kelly’s letter to get back to me…and here I was sitting on a bench in California, chatting with a gentleman on the other side of the freaking planet.
I do my best to live those little moments to the fullest, even if it’s something as simple as stopping to look at a dandelion puff bravely pushing up through a crack in the asphalt, or saying hello to a roly-poly bug on the way in to work from the parking lot. I don’t ever want to lose the sense of joy I had when I smeared my first birthday cake all over my face, or when my first puppy, Keiki, licked my cheek for the very first time. Remember those little things and the wonder and joy that come with them. That joy will make it into your writing, and your writing will be all the better for it.
In 2000, the year those kindergartners graduated from high school, Mr. Healy retired. He passed away this year. He will be sorely missed. And thanks to him, no matter how deep the horse poop gets between work, and home, and trying to keep 20 balls in the air and not drop any, I will always remember that there’s a pony in here somewhere, and I’ll find him if I just look hard enough.
What was the second important thing Mr. Healy taught me? Together is an adverb…
This post is dedicated to Mr. Healy and also to my Together class of 1982. All y’all ROCK!