Sunday, January 23, 2011

Taking the Chances that Help Us All Grow

Despite being class president one year in high school, and enjoying speaking in front of large groups, I always felt shy in social situations, and even about speaking up in class. As a result I missed out on some exceptional chances for growth.

I've been thinking about some times when I was shy -- and then uncharacteristically bold -- over the past few days. It was prompted by the obituary of Reynolds Price, called "one of the major voices of modern Southern literature". He taught at Duke, but I never had the nerve to try to take one of his classes. Later I realized that two favorite writers, Anne Tyler, from my hometown of Baltimore, and Josephine Humphreys, from my favorite city, Charleston, SC, both studied with him. I would not have reached their levels, but oh, to have learned from him!

By the end of junior year, I was not about to miss another significant opportunity. So I interviewed for a place in a seminar run by Eugene Patterson, who had won a Pulitzer for his Atlanta Constitution editorials in strong support of racial equality. He had also been managing editor of The Washington Post at the time the Pentagon Papers were published. I got into the seminar, worked hard, and wrote my heart out for him. It was the best class of my four years.

As a finale to my boldness, I invited him to speak at my sorority and then my roommate Rachel and I asked him to join us for dinner in our dumpy off-campus apartment. He graciously accepted, and we had a not-too-bad from scratch dinner made in our tiny kitchen alcove. And we served what had to have been terrible wine, in tiny little wineglasses that might have held sherry in my grandmother's home. Still, it was a splendid evening, and I felt grown-up.

Mr. Patterson, thank you for sharing your wisdom, and your kindness.

Here's to breaking out of what we think is comfortable; often, it's when we take chances that we can make real differences in our own lives. But I am still the parent of a teen -- so let me suggest to her that measured, well-thought chances are the way to go -- at least for a little longer.

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