Contributions that Matter

Submitted by Virginia Watts on Tue, 08/02/2016 - 12:12

"What are you, some kind of a poet?!"


I was eighteen and out on a blind date. My roommate had asked me to double date with her because her brother was in town and she didn't want him to feel like the odd man out. We were sitting on the Santa Barbara pier having dessert. I looked out the window at the shoreline and said "Wow -- the lights on the water look like a snow cone!"

"What are you, some kind of a poet?!" was my date's response. 

I wasn't one of the in crowd. My roommate was. Long blond hair, ready smile, easy social graces. I knew I was her last choice as a fun date for her brother, but nobody else was available. She was a bit older than most of the students at the private college we attended, and the daughter of a missionary. The missonary kids and the pastor kids were always the "fast" ones, at least at that school. I was anything but fast. 

I turned back to my hot fudge and didn't say another word. I laughed weakly when hit with the poet remark, because I couldn't conceive it as a bad thing, or a dumb thing. Looking back I can see that my date was uncomfortable too, but he had all the appearances of the in-crowd -- team jacket, jeans, crewcut. And, he was tall. I felt like I had been slapped, put in my place by someone smarter, someone cooler. I went to my corner.

That wasn't the first hit my ego had taken when risking an opinion, or an observation. I had learned to keep things to myself, mostly, and when I risked offering up a conversational contribution I weighed what I was going to say carefully.    

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Life brings us opportunities, though, right? Through the many, many years that followed I began to find my voice. Funnily enough one of my jobs was working in the Speech Communication Department at our local university. I see that experience as one of the first chances I was given to oil my verbal and written skills. 

A professor who was interested in my writing told me to "Stop pulling your punches! You don't need the passive voice here! Say it, don't tiptoe around it!" I wasn't a student, I was a clerical assistant, but I often edited articles and wrote pieces for the weekly departmental newsletter. And then I edited a paper one of the professors was trying to publish. He had submitted it many times, and finally told me to go ahead and do whatever I wanted with it. And it was published, much to his surprise and mine! True, that was a side venture into polishing up someone else's work, someone else's voice. My contribution mattered. It wasn't in my job description, but it was something I could do to help, and it was something I loved. 

I took an active part in the staff union, and found that my writing skill was something that contributed a good deal to educating workers about their rights. I wasn't a particularly good organizer, but I could put together informational pieces that moved the cause forward, and helped those who were good at the organizing piece. My contribution mattered.

Eventually I was accepted into an MFA program, thanks to recommendations from two of the professors from my earlier days in Speech Communication. And that was bliss. I was older than almost everyone else in the program, graduating at sixty. But I did it, I completed the program while I was working full time for the union. And there were so many contributions made from generous students to me, and from me to them, in reviewing work, giving thoughtful feedback, and support. Every contribution to the process mattered.

Yes, goddammit, I am a poet. I am a writer. And yet that cold, mean-spirited comment still haunts me. I try to think what the outcome might have been if my date had said "Hey -- you're right!" and left it at that. His contribution hurt, detracted from my developing self-image. 

It is hard to know how to contribute in today's world in ways that matter. We look at the big picture and are understandably overwhelmed. So much war, so much poverty, so many mean-spirited and ugly media bites. We lose sight of the fact that every positive thing we can do in our own lives makes a difference. 

The secret to changing the world is in making your little bit of it as healthy as you can. Keep your sphere tidy, and the rest of the world may work a little harder at keeping things in order. Your order won't be someone else's. But we have to remember that we are all part of this big organism called humanity, and we must keep our contributions meaningful for ourselves and each other. Don't tear each other down, support each other through the difficult and seemingly impossible challenges we face.

I'm not going back in that silent corner. I'll be a poet, a writer, a mother, a grandmother, a wife, and a woman in the best way I know. There can be no shame or embarrassment in that. My contribution matters.