Growing Up


Walk this Wing (…or how a fantasy almost got me rejected by Harvard)
by Wanda E. Fleming
 snowlight
When I was student at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School, I worked for a professor whose specialty was labor and government relations. After I received an A in his class, he offered me a job grading exams for his Harvard University Extension course. 

 I recall sitting on his office floor going over the comments I had made painstakingly and the grades I was suggesting.  In preparation for our meeting, I had reviewed all the books and articles students were assigned, then pored through each of their examination booklets, reading hundreds of short answers and essays.
 
One evening, after a particularly long session where we had locked horns on grades, (me always wanting to give more Ds than Cs), when the blue books were piled high in stacks on his desk, he peered at me over his glasses. Then, he shook his head. 
 
“And to think they almost didn’t take you.” 
 
“What?,” I asked, uncertain if I had heard what I thought I’d heard.
 
“They almost didn’t take you.”
 
My heart sank in that way where you sense someone else is doing your breathing, and you are merely watching.
Apparently, that year my professor had sat on the admissions committee. One of the questions, applicants were asked was what career dream you’d contemplated as a youth but had since abandoned. I  wrote about fantasizing  being a wing walker

As a young girl, I had once seen pictures of women in tights, walking the edges of airplane wings. One Saturday, my father took me to the public library where I could find vintage photographs and books. 

As I packed my knapsack, all I could think was, I had just finished a two year job in a juvenile court program, where I’d singlehandedly researched and edited a guide to neighborhood services for troubled teens. So, I am not certain why I didn’t say I had wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice and work toward a more equitable juvenile justice system. Or better yet end cancer, but I did not. Nor did  I say I wanted to swim with dolphins in sunny Belize on an ecological journey, because truthfully, I was a lousy swimmer; science often alluded me. I still had nightmares of my high school Chemistry teacher, an Oxford graduate on travel visa who spoke tersely at the slightest provocation and sweat profusely through all her blouses.

I think I took the question to heart. The way a child, when asked, “What do you want Santa to bring you for Christmas?” says, “Candy and toys!” –not “Underwear, galoshes or scarfs and mittens!”  Absent political savvy, it was what I had fantasized most. Fierce air on my face, tiptoeing the ledge. US flags waving upon the landing.

“This one guy–old guard, he was adamant,” my professor said as I sat stunned, large-eyed. He said, ‘I know she has an excellent academic record. I know she went to one of our finest schools but is she a serious candidate? Is she? Wing walking?'”
 
“Boy, you proved him wrong, huh?”

“I guess,” I said.
That night, I walked through icy sleet, a schlep from Cambridge to Somerville, past Chang Feng which served  the fieriest Kung Pao in town, across the train tracks and up the hill where I lived. At the moment I placed my key in the lock, I realized the dime on which my life had turned, and the Professor and I never mentioned wing walking again.

~ This piece originally appeared in my personal 2011 blog and LINKEDIN. It has been edited 2015.

Chasing Lee
by Wanda E. Fleming

Sidewalk Heart

Sunrise Walk 2015 by Wanda E. Fleming

Today,  Americans at kitchen counters and restaurant tables, in newspaper columns and phone conversations will recount a “dad story.”

Most who knew my father will recount him as a man who grew up on a rural Virginia farm where he began working at age five with the rest of his brothers and sisters. They will recall that after a year of college at Virgina State he traveled north to Washington DC to seek his fortune.  That fortune would be my mother, his city mouse to her country mouse: beautiful, well-read, and capable of baking a triple layer chocolate cake while beating him soundly in cards. Of course, I could also wax on Dad’s yard, reminiscent of Eden and envied on our block for the green lawn and beds of fragrant peonies, or his signature French vanilla bean ice cream which he would make each 4th of July. But for some reason, when I think of Dad tonight, I think of him running down a city street, my sisters and me screaming behind.

Dad had come to pick us up after a week’s visit at my Grandmother’s. The car had been acting up as it was known to do, and because this was before my parents had scrimped and saved and purchased the blue Ford Country Sedan with actual cool seat belts and an automatic back window, we set out for  the bus.  My grandmother lived miles away from us and even in the car, it would take a half an hour in traffic.  Additionally , we were weighed down with our overnight bags, Monopoly sets, rollerskates and yes, the dolls.

Each of us three girls had received that previous Christmas a rather tall doll— over two feet with chocolate skin, short ponytails festooned with red ribbons, and peppermint striped overalls. Their claims to fame–other than the rare smooth brown skin was an alleged ability to walk if you guided their hands just so. Of course this was manufacturer’s hype and bunk, and when you were struggling with your vacation gear, this became even clearer.

For whatever reason, my doll, Lee or “Big Lee”, as I sometimes called her behind her back seemed to have suffered the injuries of a veteran after two tours of Vietnam duty. Twice she had fallen off the top bunk bed. Once she had been in a doll carriage accident and ambush commandeered by my older brothers.  And unbeknownst to me, her head was rather loose.

The day was windy despite the season –summer–which is always relentlessly humid and hot in DC.  As we proceeded down the street toward the nearest bus stop, with Dad carrying our largest suitcase, a Monopoly set, and Lee, her head suddenly popped off. We were on a hill, and she kept rolling, her eyes in a permanent blink and stare. Dad dropped the suitcase and began running.

I had never seen my father run anywhere–ever. This was the era of Dads who wore hard shoes and sweaters to the hardware store, not track suits, not sneakers. They ate buttered toast and eggs for breakfast. They drank whole milk and mowed the lawn for exercise. Down the street Dad ran. Of course, the bus which barely ran on Saturdays passed us, as we girls shrieked.

As I type this in the midst of a humid Washington night, I think about dad in his nice slacks and hard shoes running to rescue Lee’s head. All I can do is grin. ~

This piece originally appeared on my blog in 2012. It has been edited 2015.


 

vanillaconewandaflemingTwo Jobs. One Only Sounded Cool.

Working as a Researcher Would Boost Her Résumé, But Scooping Ice Cream Left a Sweeter Taste, and Memories to Match

By Wanda E. Fleming
Special to The Washington Post

That summer Americans fell hard for premium ice cream, the expensive yolk-rich kind made of cane sugar and smooth half-and-half. The hunt for it spilled into the tiny parlor that sat on a street of upscale boutiques selling sapphires and suede boots. Customers abandoned plain chocolate and vanilla, and thumbed their noses at the neon-colored sherbets of childhood. They wanted the extravagant.

Running their hands along the glass cases we would later spray and wipe clean of fingerprints, they would pause at the boysenberry. They’d stare at the black walnut and eye the rum raisin. Then came the inevitable pointed finger and the words, “Could I get a taste of that?”

Scooping ice cream had not been the plan. I had yearned for a glamorous summer, but the odds were against it. Home from college, I had the same goal every season — make enough money to meet the demands of my financial aid package. This, however, was the year I bristled at the minimum-wage job and the simple foraging for tuition funds. I also needed a résumé entry, something that after graduation would wow employers. Something that would say, “Hire her.”

So, I hitched myself to two jobs with the intent of mentioning only one. The résumé-worthy assignment took place at a nonprofit legal agency, where I interviewed, by phone, directors of juvenile-offender programs. I sat on the floor of a tiny backroom with walls so anemically beige they surely once were white. The only window overlooked a littered street full of pigeons that pecked at peanut shells and the tossed buns of fast-food burgers. “Whatever you do,” the departing intern quipped, “don’t feed them — they’ll never leave the ledge.” A law student, she had long deserted the phone-interview project.

Surveys now stood in numerous knee-high stacks. Each morning I retreated to my Rumpelstiltskin-style hovel and, like the miller’s daughter with her piles of straw, I flipped through the unfinished questionnaires, making phone calls, turning answers into stats, and stats into findings. The hours droned by with my repetitive greeting and questions barely altered except to say, “So how’s the weather in Albany [Bangor, Dallas, Flint] today?”

The pay was a “stipend,” barely the cost of carfare. But with my official-sounding duties, and the promise of solitude, I grabbed the assignment. I traveled back and forth from the office to the ice cream parlor — downtown, then uptown, then crosstown to home.

Dressed in cotton skirt and sandals for the “real job,” I changed hurriedly in the ice cream shop bathroom, pulling on jeans and the company cap. As I punched my timecard, the owner invariably peered from the open sliver of his door. Leaning back in his chair, after counting the midday take, he mused, “Just in time, I see.”

As June slipped into July and July into August, ice cream checks filled my account. The survey piles shrank to the floor, but my fantasy of glamour and the unexpected began to evaporate. I was wilting. Only ice cream remained.

Unlike the law job, at least this one had Noel. He was what my parents called “flamboyant,” and amid summer’s humdrum, a resuscitator. Clutching his shirt, he sang arias, and whenever he made a point, he waved his cap through the air. At the end of our shift, he would buzz frenetically through his locker on his way to a dance club or late-night movie.

Noel taught me about gospel rock, orchids and how to tilt a sundae glass; the burgeoning foam of his ice cream sodas always braked at the rim.

“You know when you leave, they’re going to make me manager. When all you little bookworms fly back to college, they’ll come crawlin’.”

Before I left for school, the owner did stop counting his money long enough to promote Noel.

On my last day, we were serving stragglers, mostly tourists. It was muggy, and dead. Rain had come early in the morning, ceased and then wrapped a cape of humidity across the city. Noel and I had been playing the game we always played whenever it was slow, after we had wiped down counters and divvied toppings of sprinkles and pecans among the display tins. As customers neared the door, we would forecast their orders.

“See that red-haired guy,” Noel whispered, “a definite Swiss almond.”

“No way,” I insisted. “Rum raisin on a sugar cone; his nose is red.”

“You are so naive,” Noel said. “Do not give up that day job being book-smart.”

This time Noel was right, and he took the lead, 3-2.

Soon we were tied, 5-5. And then not so much an entourage as a trio entered. The reed-thin starlet in the center was flanked by two men, both almost Herculean. Her blue-black hair tumbled down the sides of her face. She was small, almost diminutive, and she was smiling at me. It was Cher.

She looked like she knew the deal. This was fat city, and she was getting her scoop of it. Her eyes wandered over the wall menu.

“Is it possible to split a large single scoop?” she asked. “Maybe chocolate chocolate chip and strawberry?”

His hat affixed, Noel froze. He stared at me. I plunged my metal scoop into the strawberry, digging for the reddest bits, sections where fat berries peeked through. Then I violated trainee Rule No. 3 of the owner’s 50. Never dip a used scoop into another vat of ice cream without first rinsing. I swept the half-filled scoop of strawberry across the dark chocolate chip, and voila! A two-sided globe appeared — pink-red on one side, deep brown on the other.

The big guys stared down at her, the starlet with her cone. She grinned and slipped out the door.

Back on campus I sat on the stairs of the student union listening to my dorm mate Sara wax on about water-skiing. Her hair was now the palest white yellow, a look she attributed to fresh-squeezed lemon juice.

When she finished she asked what I had done all summer.

Just some research on juvenile criminals, I said.

“Cool. Very cool.”

I nodded in agreement.

By then, I was already writing the résumé in my head. As suggested by the career office, I would use action verbs like “assessed” and “documented.” I would not divulge my paltry pay or the 8-by-12 room with its dingy walls and ledge of scavenger pigeons. I wouldn’t confess that ice cream paid my ticket back to campus or that I missed Noel and the way he gripped my hand when correcting the angle of my sundae glass.

As I stared at Sara and her baby-doll hair, I thought I should brag on those arias of Noel. I should tell her about the perfect starlet cone.

But I never did.

Monday, September 1, 2008

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