What I wanted to be when I grew up


As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, May 21, 2017.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost 1.9 million students in the United States will graduate from college this year. By now, a certain question is as familiar to most of them as the strains of “Pomp and Circumstance”:

“So what are you going to do?”

Answers inevitably range from the vague to the speculative to the definitive. In my case, decades ago, it was a mash-up of all three.

After receiving my degree from Brown, I vaguely talked about getting a job as a writer. I speculated there might be an opportunity at the ad agency where I had done an internship. As for immediate employment, I was definitive: I would continue to bus tables at the Turks Head Club downtown.

Sixteen years earlier, Miss Carlone, my kindergarten teacher at Nelson Street School in Providence, had posed a similar question to my classmates and me: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

With her soft, fleshy arms and sweet voice, Miss Carlone reminded me of Mama, my beloved grandmother who lived upstairs from my family and sometimes took care of me. In September, my teacher’s maternal warmth had made my first-day-of-school jitters melt away.

Several hands shot in the air in response to Miss Carlone’s question. One kid said he wanted to be a fireman. Another was going to be a football player. A girl announced she’d like to become a teacher, which brought an approving nod from Miss Carlone.

And then it was my turn.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a bachelor,” I declared.

My classmates looked puzzled, and so did Miss Carlone – for a moment. Then she threw back her head and howled. Now I was puzzled. What was so funny?

“Tell us what a bachelor is, John,” Miss Carlone said kindly as she slid a finger beneath one of her moistened eyes.

That was easy – I just told everyone about my uncle. He lived with my other grandmother and had the upstairs of Nana’s bungalow all to himself. Once he set up two TVs in the living room so he could watch two basketball games at the same time. He sat back in his big leather recliner, eating peanuts and following the scores, until he fell asleep. What a life!

Most of my classmates continued to stare blankly at me while Miss Carlone fished a tissue out of the sleeve of her dress.

At dismissal time, Miss Durgan, the principal, appeared in our classroom door – usually a sign that something was wrong. But Miss Carlone simply asked me to reveal my life’s ambition again, after which the two educators laughed with abandon, like my aunts at a family party. I was still puzzled, but at least I wasn’t in trouble.

The following year, apparently, my career plans evolved. Thanks to my mother, a lined yellow paper of mine from first grade still survives. Titled “My Wish,” it reads: “If I had one wish, I would want to be a writer. And I would write stories for all the children.” There is no mention of my marital intentions.

My wish came true – sort of. Three months after graduating from Brown, I indeed landed a copywriting job at the ad agency where I had interned. I would eventually meet my wife there, too.

But at the Brown commencement in 1982, my future was as unclear as the dreary Providence weather that first Monday in June. The only thing I knew for sure was I now had an English degree.

Miss Carlone would have been amused to know it was a bachelor’s degree.

My First Day In Second Grade

Miss Martin said we were going to do spelling next, which pleased me – I liked spelling. But when she started writing words on the blackboard, my heart sank. Why was she writing so fast? And what were those hieroglyphics?

It was the first day of second grade at Fifth Avenue School in Narragansett. I didn’t like that I was the new kid in class. I didn’t like taking a bus to school. And now, sitting in a roomful of strangers, I didn’t like that Miss Martin was putting words on the board in cursive writing.

I didn’t know how to write in cursive. At Nelson Street School in Providence, where I had attended first grade, we only used block letters.

I said nothing as heads lowered around me and everyone got to work. Eyeing the first word’s slanted lettering on the blackboard, I mirrored it on my paper as best I could. Hmm… Not bad. On to the next word… And the next… And when I got to the last one, I felt pretty good – a near perfect match from the board. Then Miss Martin reminded us to put our name at the top of our paper. Gulp.

I could hear the comments at lunchtime already: “Hey, there’s that new kid – you know, the one who can’t write his name.” Cue the laugh track from the Charlie Brown specials: “HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!”

I squirmed in my seat, moved my number-two pencil to the top line, and scratched out J-O-H-N in stop-and-go block letters. When the papers were passed forward, I quickly slid mine to the bottom of the pile and handed it to the girl in front of me. That night in bed, I worried about what Miss Martin would think.

The bus ride to school was better the second day. A kid named Jeff said hi to me, all freckles and crooked teeth. School was better, too. The art teacher was fun, and we went outside for recess.

And then we got our spelling papers back. Mine was branded “Good!” and sported a silver star. Below my blocky J-O-H-N, Miss Martin had written my name in beautiful, flowing cursive. That was the extent of her instruction – no summons to her desk, no classroom call-out. I appreciated her discretion. I sensed it was filled with understanding. At home, I traced Miss Martin’s example over and over again. By bedtime, I had mastered my cursive “John”.

Through my years in school, I encountered teachers who were brilliant, inspiring, lazy, crazy, strict, boring, funny, and more. When people ask who my favorites were, I always include Miss Martin. Because looking back on that second day of second grade, I realize she taught me something much bigger than how to write my name. Miss Martin showed me that how you teach is often as important as what you teach.

Thank you, Phyllis Martin, wherever you are.

%d bloggers like this: