I Could Have Been Somebody

March 2, 2008

Terry Malloy: “You don’t understand. I could have had class. I could have been a contender. I could have been somebody!”
               — Budd Schulberg, b. 1914, American screenwriter
                   from On the Waterfront, 1954

Today’s list: Careers I Did Not Pursue

1. Nurse — From about seventh grade to ninth grade I wanted to become a nurse. I read all the requisite juvenile literature, such as Cherry Ames, Student Nurse and all her further adventures in nursing, 27 titles that saw Cherry become, among other things, a dude ranch nurse, a rural nurse, a cruise nurse, a boarding school nurse, and a department store nurse. It never occurred to me that Cherry’s career path was unusual and might indicate she had trouble maintaining focus and holding a job. In ninth grade I failed biology in the first marking period as a way of “acting out” (I did it on purpose, really). My mother said I could forget about becoming a nurse with grades like that, and I believed her, and that’s why I am not a nurse.

2. Nun — For most of my tenth grade year I wanted to become a nun. Every morning I would go to the library at Bishop McDevitt High School and look through a directory of women’s religious communities. It was sort of like a college catalog, all the various orders of Catholic sisters presented with a picture of a typical member in her official garb and a fact sheet about what the community’s particular ministries were. I prayed every day for discernment and read memoirs of convent life that I found in the guidance office. I was drawn to the School Sisters of Notre Dame because I adored my Latin teacher, Sister Euphemia, but I finally settled on the Sisters of the Good Shepherd, who did social work among troubled and adjudicated girls. I sent away for their application materials. My mother found the packet in my room and questioned me with some alarm and suspicion about my plans. This attitude puzzled me. Some time during the summer before eleventh grade my interest in becoming a nun waned as my interest in Michael Vergot as a boyfriend increased. Eventually I threw the application materials away, and never thought about it seriously again.

3. Career Department Store Clerk — By the time I was a senior in high school I’d abandoned one career plan because I believed I wasn’t good enough at science or math or anything else to take on the responsibility for other people’s lives, and another because if God had intended the consecrated life for me, he would not have made Michael Vergot so tall, so handsome, so loving and encouraging a friend who read my fiction while I read his and listened to my troubles at home while I listened to his troubles with girls (while all the time wondering what on earth was wrong with these girls!). My grades continued to be mediocre, both in the original sense of the word, “average,” and in the more popular sense, “failing to meet a standard of quality or achievement.” That standard was, of course, set by my demanding mother, who reminded me repeatedly that I was probably “not college material,” suggesting that an investment in higher education for me would not be wise.

In March of my senior year Sr. Mary Kilian, who had been my tenth grade English teacher and was now the Prefect of Studies (more or less the head guidance counselor) called me to her office and questioned me about why I had not yet applied to any colleges. I said that my parents did not think college was suitable for me because they didn’t think I could succeed there, and that I would probably go full time at Pomeroy’s or Bowman’s (the downtown department stores that gave most of us our first jobs). Several days later my mother handed me an application for the local community college, then assembling only its second class. “Fill this out,” she said. “We’ll give you one year to make something of yourself.” There is not a doubt in my mind that Sr. Kilian intervened on my behalf, and that I have her to thank for my higher education. She died three years later, before she was fifty years old. I take flowers to her grave every Mother’s Day.

4. Social Worker — I managed to exceed my mother’s high but not hopeful expectations of me at Harrisburg Area Community College. I was enrolled as an English major with the plan for me to go on to a state college and become an English teacher. That was certainly not my plan, although I didn’t have much of an alternative in mind. At the start of my last semester before graduation, a college guidance counselor approached me with a novel idea. New York University was looking for community college graduates to join their social work program and then return to their home towns armed and ready to end poverty, eradicate racism, and reform the foster care system. I took the materials home. My mother refused to fill out the Parents’ Confidential Statement (the precursor of the FAFSA), without which I could not be considered. “You’ll go to Millersville and become an English teacher,” she said. The rest is history.

5. Novelist — When I entered college in 1965, I had no idea that one could study and train to become a writer of imaginative literature. University MFA programs with concentrations in fiction writing were only beginning to emerge as separate from general graduate programs in language and literature. Most of the writers I knew about were journalists or college professors first and creative writers second. My models were Paul Barringer, the bored and ineffective English teacher in Up the Down Staircase who, enabled by the school secretary who adores him, spends more time writing his novel than serving the educational needs of his students, and Tennessee Williams’s Tom Wingfield, his ability to write the poetry that is tearing at his soul diminishing with every pair of shoes he sells. The one was killing his students’ self-esteem, the other killing his own.

I’d written stories and poems for as long as I could remember. The aforementioned Sr. Kilian and Michael Vergot had never faltered in their encouragement of my creative efforts. But a single semester of creative writing at Millersville, where the instructor dismissed my work as banal and derivative (it was), suggested that it was probably prudent to find a real job.

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I’d done this or that, made a different choice here, caught a different break there. Then I look at my life and realize that if even one decision had been different, I would not be where I am now. Most important, I would not be Lynn’s mother. No one would be Lynn’s mother, and a world that does not have Lynn DeAngelis in it is not a world I like to visualize. I no longer want to be a nurse, and certainly not a nun. My recent trek through Season 4 of The Wire, which examines both the dysfunctional school system and the even more inept foster care social services system in a typical eastern city, stirred my crusader’s heart, but these days my social activism is expressed almost solely through the mechanics of writing a check and putting canned goods in the church collection box.

But as soon as I post this, I am packing up my materials and going to a quiet place where I have no Internet, no housework calling out to be done, and no clutter of other materials that compete for my attention. I’ll be forging ahead with the manuscript that I hope will get me admitted to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference one more time. I can still be somebody!

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