In fifth grade, I learned what it means to be “in flow.” And the most valuable gift my teachers gave me that year was allowing me to stay in that impassioned state for a whole day, a day that provided the first distinct clue to my eventual calling.
The juxtaposition of teachers I had that year was striking. My English/Science teacher was a very kind and creative man. I saw him several years ago and his eyes still reflected his warm spirit. In December of 1969, he prompted a class discussion on “keeping the Christmas spirit,” and by the end of the discussion, our class had agreed that we would keep the Christmas spirit in our classroom for the rest of the month.
Those are the most peaceful couple of weeks I can remember experiencing in grade school – a time out of time, when cliquishness and rivalries were set aside, and kindness prevailed.
My homeroom teacher was a completely different person. To put it bluntly, he was a bully. He bounced the boys’ heads against the wall as he screamed at them. Some of my male schoolmates from that era have run into this particular teacher over the years, and told me that they had to restrain themselves from laying a few revenge punches.
Girls had it easier – he simply screamed at us, apparently having been warned that it wasn’t a good idea to put his hands on young females. I had a difficult time mastering long division, and was forced to repeatedly visit his desk asking for explanations. On the whole, I was an excellent student – I tied for the top score in my class on the achievement tests that year – but math and geography, subjects he taught, were my weak areas, and I was a shy and timid child as well. I lived in terror of the man, and especially dreaded asking him for help. Each time I approached him with questions, he would loudly and impatiently rattle off his explanation, and by the third time, he was screaming and I was in tears.
Twenty years later, taking a GRE prep class, I realized that the pounding heart and shortness of breath I experienced when trying to comprehend math problems went back to those visits to the desk of my fifth grade teacher for help with long division (which a girl in class eventually taught me to do).
So it was a very Jekyll and Hyde sort of school year.
One day, we were given an intriguing writing assignment. Kind Dr. Jekyll listed several words on the blackboard, and told us to use them in writing a story. How to use ALL of those words in a story…what a great challenge! The assignment drew me in and I began writing. And writing. And writing.
My memory of that story is hazy today, but it began with several kids on inner tubes that had been tied together, floating in some large body of water. The kids fall asleep and wind up on an island with a demented Santa Claus. It turns out that Santa Claus isn’t demented – Tiny Tim is. He’s kidnapped Santa and then disguised himself in a Santa Claus costume. In this guise, he’s murdering people and making their skins into…something I can’t recall. The kids, of course, discover this grisly operation, rescue the real Santa, and expose Tiny Tim’s nefarious deeds.
And yes, I’m guessing that somewhere deep in my subconscious, Santa was a stand-in for Dr. Jekyll, and Tiny Tim for Mr. Hyde.
I could not seem to lift my head from the notebook paper as I scribbled. When I moved across the hall between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s classrooms, my mind was on that island with Santa Claus and Tiny Tim. As soon as I slipped through the classroom door and sat – and I remember sitting at the front of Dr. Jekyll’s room and at a desk right next to the door in Mr. Hyde’s– my pencil was flying again.
Now, I recognize that as the blissful state which writers, athletes, and all manner of creative people long for, the “peak experience” state of being “in flow” or “in the zone.” When I reach it today, I regard it as one of the most exalted frames of mind I’ve encountered – not quite on par with giving birth to my daughters, but in the ball park. I see my husband enter it when he is composing a song, my daughters when they are painting or writing.
Mr. Hyde, as I recall, was an athletic coach. And it was perhaps for that reason that he recognized my trance for what it was and let me keep writing. Or perhaps Dr. Jekyll had asked him to let me continue.
I’m not sure when I came back to the everyday world, when the story was finished. I do remember that Dr. Jekyll read those several pages to the class a couple of days later. As it turned out, the assignment hadn’t been to use ALL of the words in a story, but to use ONE of the words. Oops. But since then, juxtaposition of unrelated words and subjects has always been my favorite writing prompt.
As a reader, I’ve been addicted to words since following the adventures of “Sally, Dick and Jane,” and “The Cat in the Hat.” On that day in fifth grade, I realized that I could dream my own stories, and became addicted to words as a writer. I went on to publish a poem in the local paper that year, to win a couple of all-school fiction contests and 2nd place in a school poetry competition the next year. To spend three of my high school years in a program for gifted writers.
Too often, it seems to me, children are rushed from classroom assignment to assignment, and after school and on weekends, from one activity to another. How often do they have the opportunity to get “into the zone,” and stay there for as long as the muse continues dictating? I can tell you this: once they’ve been there, they will want to return, and return, and return. Passion develops this way, addiction to the art or science that enthralls them, takes them into a state of flow, and can carry them past the more dangerous temptations of adolescence – and perhaps right into a true calling.
Bonnie Vesely is a career coach to world-changers, artists, writers and other creative entrepreneurs, and is a writer herself. She’s Mom to two grown daughters and two elderly dogs, and lives with her husband near Bloomington, IN. You can find her blog, Right Livelihood, JustVentures at www.justventurescoaching.com, and her Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/JustVentures-Coaching-and-Communications/147339475363095. And follow her on Twitter: @BonnieJVesely.