About Me

My Life as a Reader

published January 2, 2012

I’m Mary Jo, and I’m a reader. Ever since I learned to read, I have loved books. My best childhood memories are reading with my mother and siblings, making trips to the library and toting home stacks of paperbacks, and spoiling my eyesight finishing a book after bedtime. When I was in elementary school, I would read the textbooks from cover to cover just to have something to do and to be able to say I did it. When I was in high school, I felt cheated when I discovered that my sophomore English teacher was teaching us straight from Cliff’s Notes. “Isn’t there more to these books than these rote questions and responses?” I wondered. The following year, AP English Lit was my favorite class, where my favorite teacher of all time, Mr. Jim McDonough, who looks just like the British comedian Rowan Atkinson (or Mr. Bean) taught me close reading. I followed my reading bug to Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, a small, rigorous liberal arts college where I majored in English and Spanish. At Centre I dove into classes on Shakespeare and Austen, the Romantics, Transcendentalists, and Southern Agrarians, Arthurian legends and Greek philosophy. I also got to spend a semester in Merida, Mexico. I lived the life of the mind and loved every minute.

When it came time to figure out what to do after graduation, I decided to pursue a dream. I figured that no matter what happened later, even if my dream utterly failed, I would feel better knowing that I set out to try for it at the first opportunity, rather than settling early and putting it off. (That might have been a slightly fatalistic way to think of it, but I told myself I was mixing my wildly idealistic optimism with a healthy dose of reality.) I wanted to write, and being the risk-averse, academic-oriented, school-loving 21-year-old I was, I figured the best way to do that was to attend a writing program.

Why did I want to write? Idealizing books had led logically to idealizing their writers, and I thought that the most high and noble thing anyone could do was to create fictional worlds to gift to others, to help them escape whatever they needed to escape and to fill them with joy and make them think, even for just a moment. Ever ambitious, I wanted to try to do the thing that I thought was the greatest and most important thing in the world. I didn’t think much about whether I liked it or was good at it. I wanted to do it because of the value and esteem I held, and mostly still hold, for writers. At that point I actually didn’t have much experience writing fiction. The only short story I wrote in the four years I spent in college was the one I used in my grad school applications. Before that, the only short story I wrote in high school was one that I was assigned to write as a freshman, using a very specific prompt. The one kind of writing I did have plenty experience with was journaling. I have been journaling since I was about twelve. There are boxes of notebooks in my parents’ basement, I think, full of teenage drama. By now, over half of my life has been committed to paper. (Hopefully, this experience will prove useful for blogging.)

I applied to a handful of programs in my senior year at Centre, and was accepted at the University of Cincinnati’s program for a Masters of Arts in English, with a creative thesis and a concentration in fiction. I spent two years there, teaching freshman composition courses, taking classes with intimidatingly intelligent and accomplished professors and classmates, and writing overly serious short stories about shy young women with relationship issues. Also, living in my parents’ house, waiting tables, and traveling to Tennessee about every other month.

At the end of my time at UC, I decided I was moving to Nashville to be closer to David, who was my long-distance boyfriend at the time, and who is now my husband of 17 months. I made some halfhearted applications to Vanderbilt’s MFA and PhD programs, but by then I could pretty much tell that my time in academia was over. I knew I didn’t have the heart for cross-country moves or the academic job hunt, and I doubted I had the intellectual focus or endurance. I figured the bargain I had made while applying to grad schools initially had been fulfilled. I had tried for the dream and failed, and would now be happier in a settled life for having at least tried it. God, that was a bleak way to think of the rest of my life. How about this: more optimistically, I had decided to make a life and a living now, rather than putting off love and gainful employment any longer, and, besides, I could write anytime, and now grad school had given me some of the skills, discipline, and judgment I’d need to make something out of any worthwhile idea I might have later on in life. Whew. That’s better.

So I taught for English composition for freshmen for a year at Belmont University. That was a part-time gig, so I was very, very poor. But it was great to be in a classroom where the students were intellectually engaged and enthusiastic. The low pay created an unsustainable situation for my bank account, though, so I applied to the Nashville Teaching Fellows program, which trains alternatively licensed teachers and places them in urban classrooms. I ended up in McGavock High School, the largest high school in Tennessee, teaching Spanish II and English III. My English classes were all male students from the “STEM Academy,” which in our school meant auto shop. You can imagine how excited those kids were about writing five-paragraph persuasive essays. At the end of the year new teachers were let go in budget cuts, and I ended up at Glencliff High School, the most diverse school in Tennessee. I taught English III and English IV to students in the “Hospitality Academy,” which in our school meant cosmetology and culinary arts. I liked Glencliff because the students were more respectful than McGavock students and the faculty was young and vibrant. But again, at the end of the year, new teachers were let go in budget cuts. Luckily, I had 4 offers, because 97% of my students had passed the TCAP writing exam. I chose the Academy at Old Cockrill, a nontraditional high school which only accepts students ages 17-21 who are making up credits to get their high school diplomas. Classes are small and students are screened through an interview process in order to get in. This is my fourth school in four years, but I want to stay here. It’s challenging, but in a way that I feel I can handle. Because there are so few students, I feel like I’m actually able to create relationships with them. They’re interesting people.

There have been times in my recent history when I stopped reading for fun. Late high school, most of college, all of graduate school, and my first year and a half teaching in public school. It was no fun. Reading is very important to me. But in the past year or two, my reading habit has come back in a big way. I’m reading more than ever, and more widely and systematically than ever. And I have some things to say about what I’ve been reading.

Recent Posts

Reflections on the End of a Purposeful Summer

So I started this summer pretty ambitiously. I was going to take improv and dance classes and sell my house and write more on the blog.

I took the dance classes back in the beginning of June: classical ballet, tap, jazz, hip hop, and Fosse. Fosse was probably my favorite style because it was more about acting and attitude than fast movements, so it was easier for me to keep up with. I took several classes with the same guy because I liked how he told us to relax and groove into Janet Jackson’s “All for You.” I did have some muscle memory of some of the steps we learned, but that worked against me as often as it helped, because the way I learned the steps twenty years ago wasn’t always the same way the instructor was teaching them now.

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The improv classes were super fun and hilarious. My leaders and classmates were so supportive and accepting that it was hard to feel embarrassed about acting really dumb, or about blanking and failing. I found that I was best at catching and making cultural references, capitalizing on my nerdy trivia knowledge. I was less good at singing, keeping a straight face, and at asserting myself and jumping in when the whole class was taking turns, since I always assumed everyone else’s ideas were better than mine and I was worried about hogging the spotlight, while it was clear that others did not have this concern at all, and were more likely to fight to get and keep the spotlight. I don’t think the classes were a magic pill for confidence, but I do think if I were able to continue them long term, my confidence would indeed grow.

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Even if it didn’t change my life, taking these classes was a small way to practice a thing that has the potential to make a difference in anyone’s life—taking a risk, doing something hard and uncomfortable, and accepting failure ahead of time. I’m glad I did it, and if I can’t make fun classes like this a part of my weekly routine throughout the entire year, I do want to make a habit of looking for opportunities to step outside myself like this and try to do new things that I’m not guaranteed to ace. It’s good practice for a recovering perfectionist who doesn’t want to have peaked in high school.

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Then the house sale basically took over our lives. We underestimated how much work was required to get the place ready to sell. It was a lucky thing I didn’t have to work in July. I don’t know how people sell their houses without taking time off work to do it. Even if you hire people to do the work, you still have to be there during business hours to open the door for them. I made many trips to the storage unit, met with contractors and our realtor, and cleaned and cleaned.

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Our area of Nashville is a seller’s market right now. Which was awesome for us because we sold our house in one weekend for more than our asking price. Our work definitely paid off. But we wanted to buy a larger house in the same zip code, so we’d be dealing with the same high prices and bidding wars, and that made us stressed and worried about being homeless. We’d decided to move this summer because we were afraid we’d get priced out of this market if we waited any longer, and we were starting to be afraid we might have waited too long already. We looked at a lot of places and disagreed about them. Finally our awesome realtor was able to find us a premarket house in our price range that we were able to agree on. It’s a split level with four bedrooms on a shady dead end street with a rocky creek in the back for our little boy to play in. Moving dates have yet to be set.

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During June and the first half of July, I was posting more reviews than I have since the blog’s first month. The routine that I set worked, and I made a significant dent in the number of books on my “read and not yet reviewed” list.

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And then I stopped posting reviews for two weeks because I lost my desk. In staging our house for potential buyers, we had to move my desk and desktop computer to storage. I find this laptop adequate for reading and browsing, but uncomfortable for writing, so it became a convenient excuse. The whole thing makes me think about how right Virginia Woolf is about how important it is to have space of your own when you’re trying to be creative. It makes me determined to ensure that when we arrange things in our new house, I get the space I need to write and read and spread out my books in precarious piles. When we’re truly settled back in again, I definitely hope to make up for lost time. As awesome as my summer blogging routine was, I’m already out of the habit, and it will take some time to establish a new habit, with the school year under way too.

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So I guess I met more of this summer’s goals than not: dance, improv, selling and buying houses, and blogging. And where I fell short, it was because real estate took over my life for a while. Also, Cogan turned 2, David and I turned 31, and we celebrated our 5th wedding anniversary.
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Now here’s to the start of a great new school year!
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