I read and personally reply to every email that comes in to me, even the cranky ones. Not surprisingly, the cranky ones tend to lodge in my heart long after I read them.
Several years ago someone wrote to say, “I don’t know why you put all that scholarship stuff in the Ali books. It has nothing to do with the plot.” Perhaps not, but the so-called “scholarship stuff” has a lot to do with me. Last week’s blog was the first part of the story about how I ended up going to college. This would be part two. If you’ve heard me speak at a random PEO or AAUW fundraising luncheon, you may be familiar with this story. Even so, I think it bears repeating.
There were 128 kids in Bisbee High School’s 1962 graduating class. Two of the girls were pregnant. One, was pregnant and unmarried. Her baby bump was totally invisible under her boyfriend’s Letterman’s sweater. The the second one, Linda, was married and expecting her second child. She had her boyfriend/husband had gotten “in trouble” and married between our sophomore and junior years.
In April of that year, with graduation scheduled for the end of May, Linda received a letter from the superintendent of schools saying that due to her “delicate condition,” she would not be allowed to participate in Class Night, Baccalaureate, or Graduation and would be receive her diploma by mail. Did the father of her “delicate condition” receive a similar letter? No, he did not, and despite the fact that he was already a father, he had been allowed the play varsity sports all during both our junior and senior years.
My best friend, Pat McAdams Hall, and I were co-editors of the school newspaper, the Copper Chronicle. We were both offended, so we began passing a petition asking that Linda be allowed to graduate with our class. Shortly thereafter Mrs. Riggins, our Journalism advisor, called us in and told us we needed to stop passing the petition. We said, “No, this isn’t fair.” Next our senior class advisor, Mrs. Medigovich, called us in and told us we needed to stop passing the petition. We said, “No, this isn’t fair.”
A few weeks later, on a Tuesday afternoon, when I arrived home from school the phone was ringing. You may be asking yourself how, almost sixty years later, I can be so sure that the phone rang on a Tuesday afternoon? Easy. I answered the call because my mother was ironing, and Evie Busk always washed on Monday and ironed on Tuesday!
On the phone a male caller asked if he could speak to my father. I said he wasn’t home. Then the man asked to speak to my mother. When my dad arrived home later that evening, she told him he needed to call the superintendent of schools. So he did, and when the conversation ended, he came looking for me.
“I’ve just been told that you’ve been chosen to receive the Bisbee High School Alumni Scholarship to the University of Arizona,” he said. “It will be awarded during class night on the condition that you stop passing that petition.”
That scholarship was the only way I was going to be able to go on to college. I stopped passing the petition. Linda did not graduate with our class. I went on to college. I wouldn’t be a mystery writer today if I hadn’t gone on to school, but I always felt as though my success was predicated on grinding Linda’s life into the dust. She died of cancer while we were all still in our twenties.
Decades later, at a book signing in Tucson a man I thought to be a stranger turned up at my table. “I’m Amos,” he said. “Linda’s older brother. Our whole family knew what you tried to do back then. Thank you.”
His words were a real blessing—a balm to my soul.
Had I been allowed in the Creative Writing program at the University of Arizona, I’m sure I would have been told to write what I know. Somehow I managed to figure that out on my own, and that’s what happened here. In many ways, Ali’s history and mine are intertwined. That’s how all that “unnecessary scholarship stuff” ended up in her books.
And you know what else?
Cranky emails or not, it’s still there.