Dear Ms. Woodyard,
Hearing your name makes me fifteen years old again, at the very best moment of fifteen. Not the fifteen when one is lost – which is so much of life at fourteen and fifteen and eighteen and twenty-one and twenty-five, longer than any of us would like to admit – but the fifteen of SDS, the fifteen when one is called into the office of Jo Woodyard.
So you’re in there and the winter light is coming through the windows and you’re a little scared because you know she’s going to talk to you about the future, which feels ungraspable, which likely will entail college in some strange place, a school occupied by those older SDS alums who come back to give talks about where they are now, leaning on desks or sitting on desks and seeming cocky and wise with the secrets of academia. They have girlfriends and boyfriends and they drink and do internships and they no longer live with their parents, which frankly blows your mind. But anyway, forget that. Focus.
Jo Woodyard is standing across from you, ready to talk about The Future. What schools? What plans? Do you want to be a big fish in a little pond, or a little fish in a big pond? She asks you this, and you realize you have never really thought of yourself as a fish before, but now that you think of it, there are a lot of options. Probably you wouldn’t want to be a goldfish in one of those koi ponds, all burnished in glittery scales with no place to go. Maybe you’re one of those bottom dwellers, those nurse sharks with the crazy, wiry mustaches, cruising the sea floor, or a rare pink dolphin in the Amazon, making do in cloudy waters with very little, only showing your beauty to discerning eyes. Come on, cut it out. Focus. Jo Woodyard has advice.
Jo Woodyard seems serious and grave and invested in you when, truth is, you’re not really invested in you. Your whole life only seems to consist of now, with your friends, when you laugh so hard it really does feel like you’ve ruptured something deep inside, one of those superfluous organs like the spleen or a spare kidney. Your whole life is listening to Enya and crying under your bedspread. Sneaking out of Mike Johnson’s philosophy class to watch movies at Converse Cinemas. Pretending you know what’s what because you’ve had your first coffee, your first cigarette, because you’ve read poetry in a room with people who didn’t laugh you out of the joint. If there is a future out there, it’s too far away for you to see, and probably, you have always thought, you just have to age yourself into it, like how wisdom teeth grow without any of your own doing, because of some wide-mouthed, prognathous cave man ancestor – no offense to him. The future, you have always thought, happens by accident.
And anyway, Flip and Heather and Meagan are waiting for you in the art room where you, de facto members of the Loser Arty Group, go to eat lunch. If you do imagine a future, you pray it’s one in which you are Cool Arty Types living together in a ramshackle house writing poetry, all of you with Winona Ryder’s hairdo, all of you dating Ethan Hawke. After this is over with Jo Woodyard, after you figure out whether you’re a nurse shark or a pink dolphin, you’ll go back in that room and sit on the plastic milk crates that make a bingo game of your ass cheeks, and Meagan will ask, how did it go? “Did she suggest that you have a future in the custodial arts?” Flip, who has memorized the entire class’s GPA from a list he clandestinely read upside down on Jo Woodyard’s desk, wonders if you want to know your rank. He is eating a chili dog. You have Lunchables, which you’ll read about in ten years as being only slightly above pork rinds as the worst possible thing for human consumption.
How did it go? You say it was fine. It went fine. You don’t tell them about the light in the windows or how you scanned Jo Woodyard’s bookshelf and her photographs because all adults, especially teachers, are Fascinating Mysterious Unicorn Creatures. How weird is it when you run into them outside class at Belk or Hardees and they’re masquerading as Regular People, people who get oil changes and file taxes and trim their toenails? It’s all too much. You don’t tell them that Jo Woodyard was serious about your future, which kind of made you serious about your future, like maybe it didn’t have to be an accident after all. Maybe writing was something that, you know, maybe, possibly, could be done. By, like, you. She didn’t even seem to be kidding. You thought maybe she’d hold the door to her office as you were leaving and say, psych. Good luck, kid. You’re gonna need it. But Jo Woodyard didn’t.
And so you leave, your head doing that thing where someone praises you, someone believes in you, and now the whole head is beating like a heart or a fingertip, that rush of blood, and you want to tell everyone and no one, keep it a secret, because when you tell too much, when you share too much, or with the wrong people, it’s like being robbed over the course of one whole day, a little bit missing every time. And now, see, there is this thing called The Future, and even if you never figure out whether you’re a nurse shark or a goldfish or a pink Amazonian dolphin, you know you can be smart about it. Be brave or fake bravery, at the very least.
Take a bite of that PB&J and look around the SDS art room one last time. You can’t know this, but about fourteen years after you graduate – my god, you’ll be ancient! – you’ll come do a reading, stand up there in a bookstore near that place where you had your first coffee and read putrid poetry that no one laughed at, that place that is now a noodle shop, and you’ll be reading from your novel, and right there in the audience? Jo Woodyard. The Future is now. Jo Woodyard is sitting there while you answer questions, most of which are posed by your mother in the front row who doesn’t realize she is embarrassing you by publicly vocalizing her abiding desire that they Make Your Book Into A Movie. Still, all you can think is, Jo Woodyard.
What is she thinking? You can’t tell now, any better than you could then. You’re not fifteen. You are thirty-two. Even Flip probably no longer remembers his class rank. It’s winter-dark, save for the Christmas lights on Morgan Square. Someone is asking you your best advice to writers, something you’ve answered a dozen times in the last six months. And so you say, leaning on that lectern, “be stubborn.” That’s the truth. You were just stubborn about it. You decided the future wasn’t an accident, or at least, it didn’t have to be, sometimes. And when she leaves – when you leave, Jo Woodyard – you are walking out that door when you say the very best thing possible. “I’m glad you were stubborn.”
I’m glad you were stubborn about the future, Ms. Woodyard. We all are. And thanks for letting us swim in your pond, big fish.
SDS, Class of 1996