The Acid Test Life’s best lessons may come by surprise
I barely saw a yard away as I drove in the pouring rain to a writing class at UCLA, half a century late. I had just earned an Emerging Voices scholarship from PEN USA. The tapes engraved on my left brain were turned on full blast.
“What are you doing? Who do you think you are to write memoirs? At your age you should be sitting by the fire, knitting.”
By the time I found parking, the building, and the room I was half an hour late. I walked in, drenched to the bones, parading my misery all the way to the front corner of the class, the only seat available under the professor’s nose. No, she didn’t have a big nose, nor was she the literary giant I expected. She had a cute face and a tiny frame lost underneath a jungle of hair. She was like a spring ready to pop loose from her high chair any minute, nothing like your run-of-the-mill, be-spectacled, erudite professors who sport their white beards as proof of their wisdom. She had a sharp wit though.
“What’s your name?” she asked and jotted it down to account for my presence.
I looked around. What was I doing among these kids? The bright 20-year old on the first row particularly unnerved me. I could be her grandma!
The professor rambled on for a while. All I could hear was “what to put in, what to leave out” in a memoir. Easy to say. These young adults had not lived yet. I had a whole lifetime to squeeze into 300 pages. The recount of any five-year period in my life span would be longer than that.
“Before I put you to sleep let’s have some fun,” she roared to the class. “Get your pens and paper ready.” Everybody’s interest piqued. Nobody was snoring anyway.
“We’re going to have a fun exercise for ten minutes.” She held up a brown bag for all of us to see. “I will pass this bag around. Without looking in it grab an item and write about it from your stream of consciousness. This is just a warm-up exercise to stretch your memory. Don’t expect a masterpiece and don’t edit please, let it flow. Nobody is going to read it except you. Wait till everybody has picked an item.”
One by one we drew something: a comb, a logo, a key…. a lemon!
“Does everybody have an item? OK! Start!”
What could be exciting about my item? I pondered for a while. As time went by, under the teacher’s raised eyebrows, I became nervous. Was she considering me a failure already? “ A senior! What is she doing here occupying valuable space? If she starts her memoirs now when will she finish? ” I banned those negative thoughts from my mind for a more productive exercise:
“I picked out a lemon,” I wrote, “What else! This is the story of my life. I always end up with lemons.
When I was young I loved sucking on lemons. I dipped them in salt to further enjoy their acidity. I wish I had not. Those lemons predicted the future course of my life.
The first lemon was my ‘Simca’, the car I owned in Togo. I was transferred a month after I acquired it.
The second lemon I picked was my husband. Needless to say the marriage didn’t last long but it provided me with the lifelong custody of a child.
My third lemon was my Vega in Los Angeles. It guzzled gas, broke down quite a bit and was totalled at 40,000 miles. …”
I continued in the same vein, putting all my lemons in one basket, throwing in a job for good measure and a boss for dramatic effect. It was a catharsis of sorts, squeezing out from my system the frustrations of a lifetime. I was getting even in my own tacit way.
“You have one more minute,” forewarned the teacher, “wind it up.”
I wrote the last paragraph:
“I have a nose for picking up lemons,” and then elaborated on the “do’s and don’ts” of avoiding the acid test.
We put our pens down.
“Now,” said the professor, “I want a few volunteers to read what they wrote.”
“ Hey, this isn’t fair. Nobody will read it except you” she had said. Yes, what a distortion of meaning! My thoughts towards her were not favorably inclined.
In the absence of hands showing, the teacher concentrated her stare at me, since I was closest to the lectern, or was it age discrimination?
“Will you volunteer, Mary?”
Did I pick up a lemon of a class too? My stream of consciousness was not meant for public exposure. I was mortified to read the story of my life to these young students who probably did not have anything in common with me. Had I known ahead of time I would have held back some unpleasant details. Why corrode their lives with my “acid experience”?
Yes, I grew crimson with each sentence. I heard a few chuckles. Were they amused or laughing at me? I played hard at keeping my composure. The professor went on to others. She then elaborated on the use of humor in recalling memories. I sat there quietly, planning an honorable exit as soon as class was over. Instead, I found myself squeezed between two students at the door.
“I loved your lemons,” said one guy, a reporter for a major paper.
“You sure have a lot of juice,” butted in another, “hey, that was witty. I want to know more about it.”
Well, it wasn’t as bad as I imagined. My self-confidence climbed a few inches. Their comments provided me with enough nerve to return the following week. It felt good to be among the younger folk. Actually, the median age was around 35. Besides, I never accepted my seniority anyway. I felt young at heart.
“How’s your lemonade, Mary?” yelled a student from across the hall, as I ventured into our second session.
“As tart as it can be,” I shot back. I felt like one of them.
It was the best lesson I learned in that class.