Friday, October 2, 2009


Working for money is something most of have to do. Some people are able to meld this necessity with an activity they love; others come to love (or at least like) what they have to do; and still others never work it out.

I was brought up to believe in honest work, but at the same time was never taught how one figured out what to do or how to go about being able to do it. There was also an underlying idea -- perhaps simply by the suggestion of what I observed at home -- that I might end up doing what my mother did until she was 50, which was being a housewife. Again, nothing was done to guide me along a path to that occupation (such as encouraging that which would lead to mating, quite obviously a prerequisite).

So I went to school; read a lot of books for entertainment; messed around on the piano; played with Barbie dolls; and learned to ride a bike, roller skate, play badminton and croquet, sew, knit, crochet, and draw and paint a little. My fifth-grade teacher (Nora Drew Gregory, who is a remarkable woman: sister of Charles Drew, the doctor who invented blood plasma; mother of Frederick Gregory, the first African American astronaut -- and as far as I know is still alive) could see that I was intelligent, and she tried to encourage me to write, going so far as to help me publish a couple of (childish) poems in some children's magazines and in a vanity-published book.

My mother, my default role model, told us often that she had graduated from high school a semester early and hung around the house for a few months, then went to D.C. Teacher's College for two years with the intention of being a science teacher, but then met my father and gratefully dropped out of school to get married and have five children. Perhaps that really was the extent of her ambition. It certainly was a full-time job. She also, though, had earlier managed to get a job working in a gas station when she was 16 (in the middle of the Great Depression! and she didn't even know how to drive). She had dabbled in drawing and painting for years, and probably around the same time as my fifth-grade writing exploits returned to college to major in studio art. She graduated in 1971 and then couldn't settle on what to do with herself. My younger sister and I decided that for her: We were going through hell dealing with the racial tension in the public schools, and after a great deal of family arguing, she ended up getting a job as a secretary at the National Academy of Sciences to earn the money for us to be sent to private high schools.

I graduated from high school having never worked for money. I had not done babysitting or any of the other things kids often do. I wasn't interested in buying stuff, so I never had the desire to have my own money. The couple of quarters or whatever it was I received as allowance was generally sufficient for my needs. And then because of the cello and the piano, my weekends and several evenings a week were taken up with going to lessons and orchestra rehearsals from the time I was around 14.

I tried a couple of summer jobs. One was in a grungy office somewhere in the suburbs, where I was fired after a week because no one told me what to do and I was too shy to ask. Another was in the accounting office at GW, where I went through columns of numbers to look for discrepancies. They actually liked me there and said I could come back any time, but I never did. Most of my summers, I took classes instead of working. Then, after I became a music major, I started playing for money, and that was more or less what I did for the next 15 years.

To be continued . . .

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