A man once old me a mother’s job is to teach the child about unconditional love. The father has a more difficult job. Of course, the father loves the child unconditionally, but he must teach the child about conditional love. He must hold the child accountable for his or her actions. If the child doesn’t take care of his responsibilities, the father has to show displeasure. If the child messes up, the father can’t say, “That’s OK, sweety. I don’t care. I love you anyway.” The mother can do that. She intercedes for the child to the authority of the father’s displeasure. The father has to step in and say this is not OK.
This lesson is vital for the child to learn because what happens if he or she goes into the work place thinking the boss is going to love them no matter what? What happens if the child expects the law to pat him or her on the head and say, “It’s OK you drove drunk. Just let’s not do it again.” In the real world there are consequences. In the real world, there are rules. The father has the job of teaching the child the nature of these rules and that they have to follow them.
When I was learning to become a writer, I had a mother figure. Her name was Charlotte Hegg, and she instantly loved anything I did. That nurturing was necessary and, without it, I wouldn’t be where I am today. But I also had another, a teacher my senior year, who taught me the meaning of conditional love. I won’t say she was a father figure, but she did teach me this valuable lesson I use every day. Her name was Mrs. Judith Learmann.
Mrs. Learmann was a legend at our school. She taught classes that prepared you for college. She was intense and powerful. Her composition class was known for producing amazing writers. She had her infamous green pen, for she didn’t believe in red ones, and with this green pen she ripped her students’ work open, finding the guts of the work and showing its faults. She was the exploratory surgeon of writing, and she forged awesome writers out of any student willing to care.
She scared the shit out of me.
I never took that class, even though Mrs. Hegg begged me to. I was not going to stand before the undefeatable Learmann and take her abuse. Not going to happen. I wasn’t strong enough for that. I never took that class. That might be the reason my wife and my editor think I’m illiterate, why my friends who read my work have to learn how to speak “Jesse” before they can understand it all. But we won’t talk about what I didn’t let her teach me. Let’s focus on Journalism 1 and the class I despised.
Mrs. Hegg made me take Journalism 1. I was intrigued by a class where I could write every day. Loved the idea, and I took it with a friend who was also interested in writing. I walked in expecting that everything I turned in would be praised for its brilliance. It was what I was used to. What I got was a whip lash of “Not right! Try it again! This is terrible. You can do better than this!” That’s what I remember anyway. The terrible comment might be a bit of an exaggeration, but the rest is spot on. I learned under her that I was not a writer at all. I learned under her that I was terrible. And I gave up. I was not the golden boy everyone had told me I was, and I went on auto pilot for the rest of the class. Journalism 1 was prep for Journalism 2, which is the school paper. You have to get a B in 1 to get to be in 2. I made sure to get a C- so I could dodge that bullet. For almost a year, I didn’t write a thing.
I’m not sure if Mrs. Hegg sensed it, or was just as awesome as I think she was, but she once again breathed life into me. I took Learmann’s literature class, Brit Lit 1, and the first day of class, when I was walking around looking at the books she had for us to borrow, she approached me. I was at that moment trying to figure out how I was going to steal her copy of Frankenstein when she stopped behind me and said my name.
I spun, tasting my heart in my mouth and trying to breath around its pounding. “Nice to see you here,” she said. I mumbled something. She still scared the shit out of me. “We have a mutual friend.”
“Who is that?” I said.
“She tells me that I need you on my paper, tells me that it will not be as powerful without you.”
“Mrs. Hegg is prone to exaggeration when it comes to me.”
“I somehow doubt that. I have an open spot on my staff if you’re interested.”
I laughed. “Sorry, it’s out of my hands. I got a C- in Journalism 1. I don’t qualify.” Bullet dodged. Relief found. Until she looked at me with a sly, and somehow hard, face and said, “I can waive that grade if I want to. It’s my paper. I can have anyone I want. If you want to write for me, I’ll sign off on it. Think about it.”
But she didn’t beg. People were supposed to beg for my writing. I went straight to Mrs. Hegg after that, asking her politely if she had lost her mind. But the prospect of writing every day gripped me with talons and jerked me off my feet. I talked myself out of it all the way to the office to change my schedule. The entire time I was signing up for the class, I told myself how much it would not work.
She had the nerve to give me deadlines! She had the nerve to change my work after I gave it to her. She had the audacity to assign me articles I didn’t want to write. I was expected to carry an equal load as the rest of the staff. She did not treat me as I thought I deserved.
She did teach me the value of an all-nighter. She did teach me to curb my language so my work was printable. And she let me write fiction. She opened her paper up to shorts, and a series that followed the entire year through. She let me have a pen name and allowed me to add mystery to what I wrote for her. She taught me one valuable lesson I use everyday.
Writing is work, not play. You can be held responsible for delivering that work in a timely fashion. And she taught me something else as well. She taught me I was capable of all of it.
When they told me my work wasn’t good enough to be published, I believed them because of her, and didn’t let my pride get in the way. I went on to do another draft, and fought to be better. Instead of rejection, I see green pen. If this dream comes true, that pen will have gotten me there.
Mrs. Learmann, you helped me every day, from the time I started writing my novels to this one. You will be with me when I close this blog out and go to work. You and I have written 13 books, and are a third of the way through number 14. I couldn’t have done it without you. I’ve got to go. I have work to do.
2 thoughts on “Conditional Love”
Ah, Jesse, I hope I wasn’t that hard on you in my classes. You have always had talent, imagination, and the drive to write. As I have told you and every student I have taught, a piece of writing is never perfect, including my own, but we owe our readers our very best. Thank you for the kind words, and I wish you great success in doing what you love. You are a writer, no doubt about that.
I know I’ve heard this all before in late night sessions after midnight in your office. Nevertheless, I love hearing the stories and it brings to mind the teachers who inspired me to become an artist. I can’t wait to read the memoir about becoming a writer that you will publish sometime in the future. Although by that time I have a feeling I will of heard it all before. Great job, now get back to work.