In 1964, the Creative Writing professor at the University of Arizona denied me entrance into his class by telling me, “Girls become teachers or nurses. Boys become writers.” So I took what seemed like the only reasonable option and graduated with a teaching degree in English.
After two years of teaching high school English at Tucson’s Pueblo High School, I was ready for a change, so I signed up to take six units of library science at summer school—Cataloguing and Selection of Materials, both taught by Eleanor Saltus. Believe me, she was one tough and demanding teacher. The two male students who had signed up for the two courses dropped out after the first week. Six of us, all female, hung in for the duration.
By fall, my husband had obtained a teaching position at Sells on what was then the Papago Reservation. By the way, that name was a derivative of what the Spanish Conquistadors called the Tohono O’odham, the Desert People. I was scheduled for another year at Pueblo. Then, a few days before school was due to start, the school librarian at Sells quit, and I was offered the job along with a provisional librarian certificate.
So off I went to Sells, still driving sixty miles round trip twice a week to take night classes in Tucson toward my library science certificate. During the spring semester of that year, my night class was Children’s Literature taught by Helen Renthal. It was there I learned, for the first time, that part of my job as a librarian was telling stories—telling them as opposed to reading them aloud.
Suddenly I found myself in my element. For the following four years I told 26 stories a week in K-6 classrooms. On Thursdays, which was storytelling day, I would use the thirty-mile drive from home to school to memorize that week’s story.
The way my wardrobe was organized back then, on story telling day, I often wore a bright green knee-length sheath with a slightly flared skirt. Anybody remember that old radio commercial for Skippy Peanut Butter? “Look for me in my bright green dress?” My storytelling dress was just like the dress on the model featured on the label of Skippy Peanut Butter jars. If you don’t remember Skippy Peanut Butter, think of the color of newly-leafed cottonwood trees.
Tohono O’odham kids are not tall. I’m six-one which meant that, as far as they were concerned, I was VERY tall. They all knew that whenever I came to their classrooms it would be to have fun so, without my knowledge, they referred to me as the Jolly Green Giant. I didn’t learn that until years later when one of the kids I had inspired to start reading sent me a fan letter after he began reading my books.
Right now, I’m on vacation. The edited manuscript landed in New York early last week. I leave on tour this coming Sunday. So last week I went to lunch with a good friend, Bonnie Abney—you all know her from reading Second Watch—and one of her good friends who happens to be a diehard J.A. Jance fan. We were scheduled to meet at the restaurant in Nordstrom’s in Bell-Square. On my way there happened to glance into the Eileen Fisher shop, and there, on the far back wall, I caught that wonderfully distinctive color of newly-leafed cottonwood trees.
You guessed it, the minute lunch was over, I went straight back to the store and bought two things—a silk blouse and a long-sleeved sweater in that glorious shade of green. They’re both already loaded into my suitcase, so when I say the Jolly Green Giant is on the move again, I really mean it, and I’ll soon be back to doing my favorite thing—telling stories.
By the way, in 1970 when I completed work on my Masters degree in Library Science, my husband said there was no reason for us to bother with my going through graduation, so I didn’t. My diploma came in the mail. His complete dismissal of that accomplishment caused me to devalue it, too. I have no idea where that diploma is now. It disappeared without a trace, somewhere along the way.
By the time the University of Arizona awarded me an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2000, both my first husband and the Creative Writing professor had been dead for close to twenty years. My husband didn’t attend that graduation, either, but you can bet your sweet bippy I did—and so did my second husband, Bill.
Sometimes living well is the very best revenge.