I didn’t know it at the time but this was my last day of employment as a secretary and the start of a major transition. Although it wasn’t officially confirmed I was pregnant, I strongly suspected I was and I was right. Since quitting my job meant relinquishing our health insurance, my timing was terrible.
In addition to impending parenthood, I faced an extremely uncertain future as a film and television writer – as illustrated by my conversation with my UCLA writing professor and mentor Bill Froug. Not only did I learn the unhappy story of another writing professor’s life, I realized it might take Froug – my champion – an unspecified “while” to read my outline. If the man who most believed in me wasn’t eager to read my latest, how could I hope to interest the powers-that-be in Hollywood?
At the time of this entry, I hadn’t earned a dime writing, John was in his second year of law school and our first baby was on the way. I should’ve been petrified but for some reason I wasn’t. To be sure, there were some hard times ahead – it would be four years before I’d see any success as a writer – but I believed we’d be all right – and we were.
Mr. Uebel was one of my favorite teachers at Jefferson Jr. High and I desperately wanted to impress him. He inspired me and challenged me in ways I remember to this day. I was lucky enough to have several remarkable teachers – among them, Jerry Farrington (Wilcox High School), Bill Froug (UCLA) and Shelly Lowenkopf (USC). I also had one terrible teacher whose last name rhymed with “cruel” (in third grade). In retrospect, what made her “cruel” was her total lack of regard for me. I was just another kid in her class which was unacceptable.
I worked hard – especially for teachers I admired – to be singled out as special. While it’s entirely possible they saw nothing noteworthy about me at all, they convinced me they thought I had something, which was more than enough to motivate an approval junkie like myself.
Maybe that’s the trick to motivating most people. Who doesn’t want to feel special? Who isn’t willing to go the extra mile for somebody who sees something extraordinary in them? Nobody I know receives as much attention and validation as they need. It’s not polite to ask for it (and if you do, it ruins whatever you get) but I suspect most people thirst for appreciation. The trouble is, outside of academia, it’s easy to get out of the habit of offering it. I’m going to make an effort to stop thinking about myself long enough to make a habit of giving it. It’s the least I can do, considering how much has been given to me.
Mr. Farrington thought he was doing something nice by calling attention to the fact I was writing a book (long-hand, in a spiral bound notebook, not exactly a professional effort). Ironically, his instincts were correct – I did crave attention, I still do sometimes – I just didn’t want to work (perform) for it. As discussed in prior blogs (link), work in any capacity isn’t one of my strong suits.
In this case, the problem was deeper and more complicated than sloth. I’m an introvert – a loner. In a group – be it therapy, a classroom or a party – I position myself on the fringes or in corners and feign disinterest in their social games. Secretly, I’m far from indifferent. In fact, I’m obsessed with other people’s opinions – of me. I want to impress them and I want something else I can’t admit. What I can’t ask for, I try to steal.
I’m talking about attention. I want people focused on how special I am. I want to fascinate with my quirks, my habits, my trivia. I want the cover of Time and Seventeen magazine. I want Johnny Carson to devote a week to mesmerizing me. What am I prepared to do to make my dreams come true?
Nothing, actually, but let’s call it my “counter-intuitive” strategy. I try to hi-jack attention by falling mysteriously silent. Some concerned soul will ask what’s going on. The more secretive my answers, the more people want to know.
To say the least, it’s far from foolproof. As often as not, people ignore the dull girl with nothing to say, in which case I fume in frustration and resent them for being shallow and stupid. For someone who claims to treasure solitude, I blubber like a baby if I’m not invited to the party where everyone else will be. I do not want to go, understand. But life loses all meaning if I’m not invited.
I was sandwiched in the center of a vinyl booth, two boys on either side. While they seemed semi-civilized at school, a round of Pepsis and fries at Denny’s unleashed their inner beast. As much as I hated to encounter obnoxious loud teenagers in real life, it was a thousand times worse to be dead center in a pack of them.
My adult self wanted to read them the riot act but my high school persona hunched speechless, red-faced.
They poured out the condiments Denny’s provided in little baskets on every table and scrawled their names in catsup, subbing salt for glitter. They blew straw wrappers at each other. They insulted diners who viewed us with disgust. If my four-year-old acted like this, I’d whisk him outside where he’d remain until he could behave himself but I didn’t have that option here. I wanted to beg our waitress’s forgiveness and leave a huge tip – I doubted the boys would leave a dime – but I couldn’t without calling attention to myself.
After they dropped me off, I called J in LA. “What’s up with your high school boyfriend?” he asked. I told him I wanted to dive under the table at Denny’s. It was hard for him to relate, since he lived a grown-up life with other adults.
The worst was yet to come. My 3rd period teacher sent me to the library because they were taking a pop quiz on material I missed. Another class, taught by Mrs. Murray, one of my former teachers in real life, already occupied the library.
When the lunch bell blared, students mobbed the door. A popular-looking perky blonde shook her bangled wrist and regaled her court with details about where she bought it, who designed it, and how much she paid. Most “girl talk” I overheard concerned fashion. They were as passionate about cute clothes as my sixties friends were about rock concerts and Viet Nam. My musings skidded to a halt when Mrs. Murray peered over their heads and said,
My adrenalin lurched into flight or fight mode. It was all I could do not to react, to pretend I didn’t realize Mrs. Murray addressed me. She repeated herself, not taking her eyes off me.
I feigned confusion. “No,” I said.
“You look exactly like a girl I had ten years ago,” Mrs. Murray said.
“Sorry, not me,” I said. As a preacher’s kid prone to Biblical references, I felt like Peter in the Garden of Gethsemane, denying my own identity three times. How could that exchange not arouse a glimmer of curiosity from one of the student witnesses? It didn’t. They were all more interested in being first in line at the snack bar than anything Mrs. Murray or I said.
To set up this entry, I wrote a short story (“The Confidence”) which fictionalized a real life confidence my boyfriend Lewis shared with me. I used his secret but the trajectory of the story itself bore no relationship to real life. Even so, my parents were appalled and saw it as a big betrayal.
Writing this diary-blog brought this issue back into focus. Since there’s no pretense this is “fiction” I need to be extra careful not to violate the privacy of people mentioned in my diary. Already, I fear I wasn’t careful enough on two occasions although there hasn’t been any negative fallout. It’s not like I’ve got millions of readers and people discuss it around the water cooler. Unless we’re FB friends, odds are you won’t find me. I hope that changes but that won’t happen overnight if it happens at all.
Going forward I will change the name of whoever I’m writing about if I think there’s the slightest possibility someone will be hurt. I’ll continue to use real names if there’s nothing in the blog that could be considered negative. If it’s more a question of whether or not I’m violating somebody’s privacy – telling the world more than somebody else might be comfortable with letting the world know – I’ll make every effort to run the blog by them first and give them the option of killing it (and hope they don’t because I’d have to start over from scratch and write a new one at the last minute.) I would, however, kill it upon request, as much as I’d hate doing so.
On the subject of secrets – I love to hear them but I might not be the best choice to tell them to. My parents used the vintage pose of little Kathy telling little Janet a secret for Joyce’s birth announcement in 1956. Janet and I re-enacted the iconic pose years later in San Diego (the second photo).
Even at age four, I ran around blurting out our secret and then instantly regretting it. “Oh no! Now you know our secret!” One kind parishioner pretended she hadn’t heard me correctly and assured me she wouldn’t tell a soul my secret about “baby Jesus”.
Mr. Farrington – it would be years before I could call him Jerry – was an instant legend at Wilcox High. A young ex-Marine, 1966 was his first year teaching. To say the least, he was intense. I didn’t witness it, but I heard he hurled a chair at a hapless student.
Our paths crossed when I took his American Problems class, an unlikely bright spot in s bleak senior year. I was used to being teacher’s pet – not for nothing did an ex-boyfriend call me KKK (for Kathy Kiss-up Knutsen) but this was different. We could talk to each other on a level I’d never experienced with an adult, let alone a teacher.
He challenged me. Early that fall he made me cry by asking questions about a novel I was writing in front of the class. Later he apologized, just like my father would have. (He didn’t realize I wept copiously at anything slightly personal.)
If he gave me an A, he’d remind me it was relative – in a smarter classroom I’d get a C. He said I could do fabulous things if I broke my habit of procrastinating.
And speaking of habits, “Take nail biting, Kathy.” Caught with my fingers near my mouth in front of the whole class, I discovered I bit my nails – and stopped.
Back then, Jerry dreamed of taking time off to write a novel. In 1970 he moved to Fresno and became a college professor. Soon after, he became a lawyer and a father. Jerry, his wife and their extraordinary daughter have lived all over the world, usually in the cause of social justice. Although he’s not religious, his value system is much like my father’s. I admire him more than I can say here – still, it’s time to issue this challenge.
Stop procrastinating, Jerry. Write that novel! I, for one, am dying to read it.