The First Time I Got Paid for Doing It
The first time I got paid for doing it was… for writing, of course.
There was a church in our town on the corner of School Street and Main – the United Church of Christ – where “Ballroom Dancing & Etiquette Classes” were held for eighth graders. My mother refused to let me attend.
“That’s where girls get pregnant!” she said.
Every morning as my school bus passed the church, I pressed my nose to the window, wondering what on earth went on in there. Halfway through 11th grade, I finally got to check out the inside of that building. The circumstances were different, but I thought that I might finally be privy to the scene where these mysterious activities took place.
In junior English class, we had received a single-page handout detailing the Lions Clubs International’s annual World Peace Essay Contest. What a notion. It was December 1966. The Vietnam War’s Operation Rolling Thunder had flown nearly a million sorties by then, with thousands of American men joining their fruitless efforts, bleeding and dying month after month. And here I was, sixteen years old and hardly even been out of town, contributing my five hundred naïve, optimistic words on achieving world peace.
I gave it my best shot, between vacuuming, cooking dinner, changing my little brother’s diapers, and watching American Bandstand with my homework on my lap on the living room sofa. (Mummy worked four nights a week. She passed me the baby as I entered the front door after school, and hustled down the steps and away. No instructions and no looking back.)
A few weeks later, I learned I had won first prize at our local level: $100, to be awarded at the monthly meeting of the local Lions Club, which was held at the United Church of Christ!
The night of the meeting was bitter cold, and a school night. I finished my homework and got dressed in my sister’s pumpkin-colored, heather wool Bobbie Brooks sweater with its matching skirt. The skirt was a little big in the waist so I folded it over a couple of times. It was only a little creased across the thighs. I didn’t have time to iron it. I brushed my hair and asked my mother if I looked okay. I sighed. Of course I looked okay. She always told me I looked okay.
My parents didn’t have any interest in accompanying me to the awards. No one looked up as I closed the front door behind me. (Maybe the Andy Williams Show was on that night. Or something.)
The Town Hall clock was striking seven as I carefully parked my father’s Ford at the corner of Church and Main, under the glow of the streetlight closest to the church hall. All the stores were closed. Lights were out and doors were darkened. Park benches across the street were empty. The shutting of my car door echoed in the melancholy stillness. The sky was so inky black that night that even the tiniest, most remote dots of starlight watched me from afar.
Ice and snow crunched under my boots as I climbed over the crusty frozen mound between the street and the sidewalk and carefully ascended the frosty brick steps to the double door entryway. The stairs had been recently cleared and a snow shovel stood guard at one side. My ragged breath came out in little puffs of steam. I think I can, I think I can.
I approached the doors and gently pressed the thumb-piece of an elegant brass door handle with my gloved hand. The door swung open on bright hinges, inviting me inside. The foyer was dark, but a slant of light on the carpet showed me the way. I glanced into the room to see what awaited me; then I hung my shoulder bag and my Sunday coat on a coat rack, stuffing my gloves in one pocket, my knit hat into the other. I pushed my hair up off the back of my neck and fluffed it up a little.
Insanely self-conscious, I was a step away from entering a fluorescent-lit room populated only by a sea of men in business suits. The Mrs. Cleavers must have been at home washing the dinner dishes in their high heels. Even the second-prize contest winner was a male – a senior – and he was there in a sports jacket with his flannel-shirted father.
My knees suddenly felt wobbly.
Somehow, I made my way to the front where I was directed to a cold, metal, folding chair on the dais facing all of these men. The vast sea of suits and ties and freshly barbered hair silently awaited me. Not a word was spoken for several minutes. All eyes were to the fore.
As soon as I sat down, I panicked that maybe they could see up my skirt, even though my legs were tucked modestly to one side. I was also quite cold – and lonely – in that unwelcome way that metal, folding chairs make you feel. I stared down towards the floor, noticing the salt stains creeping up my leather boots.
Without warning, a tiny spot on my left cheek, about an inch to the left of my nose, began to twitch involuntarily. My cheek kept twitching and twitching. I felt my armpits drench and my face flush as a wave of heat spread over my body.
What was wrong with me? Did anyone notice? The realization dawned on me that this might be what a “nervous tic” was. Maybe. Or maybe I was having a heart attack. My father had had a heart attack.
The twitching continued. I suffered through the reading of the previous month’s minutes while the white-faced clock high on the back wall ticked patiently.
Finally, it was time for the awards. I sat there on the cold, metal, folding chair while the winner of the second prize received his award and rejoined his dad. Then it was my turn. I can’t remember if they read my essay aloud. I stood up, approached the podium with tentative steps, and accepted a white #10 envelope.
“Thank you,” I said weakly to the sound of applause as I fled the hall.
In the foyer, I retrieved my coat and buttoned it on, digging for my car keys while tucking the envelope into my shoulder bag. The twitching stopped. I retraced my steps into the night. Inside the car again, I started the engine, put the heat on high and waited for the windows to defrost. I pulled out the envelope and untucked the flap. Drawing out the check, I held it forward, tilting it towards the lamplight to read my name neatly typed in Courier font after Pay to the Order of.
I shivered. I pulled on my gloves and switched on the headlights.
Up until then, I’d had to garner bits of support from English teachers who read my work aloud to bored students as they watched the clock ticking towards lunch. Occasionally my essays would earn a chuckle from Mrs. Davis or a smile of approval from my best friend, who sat across the room. This check was validation.
Mummy was wrong. The United Church of Christ hall was no different from any other cold, empty space that could be transformed with warmth, just when you needed it most.
Linda Summersea is the author of The Girl With the Black and Blue Doll, a Not-Very-Depressing Memoir of Childhood Depression. After a long career in the Arts as a teacher and mentor of Youth-at-Risk, Linda found that writing her memoir enabled her to finally resolve the unhealed damage that haunted most of her adult years. In addition to writing, she hikes, reads voraciously, and bakes magnificent berry pies on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, Washington. Linda is currently seeking representation for her memoir, while working on a new book of essays: Writing Like a Mad Woman.