Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Power to Write

Just a little trip down memory lane on my
spiritual writing journey.

The Power to Write

By Sandy Penny . Oct. 2013

It was the spring of 1963. John F. Kennedy had just been shot in November. The country was still reeling from the shock of the youngest and most beloved president in our lifetime being snuffed out before he could really make his mark on the government. His patriotic words still rang in our hearts and minds, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

I was in the eighth grade, my last year in elementary school. That was before they had a middle school. Finally, we were kings of the hill, the pinacle of childhood power before we become the babies again in high school. It was kind of symbolic that our class took a field trip to the Illinois Power Company to see how electricity is generated, how we get the power that lights up our lives.

I found it interesting to see the piles of coal waiting to be shoveled into monstrous furnaces. I’m not sure I still remember the whole process now, but it was definitely a better way to spend the day than sitting in class in the springtime. Having a natural talent for writing, I was thrilled that there would be an essay contest to see who could best recount the power generating process after the field trip. I paid special attention and made notes along the way. I took my writing seriously even then.

Our teachers would choose the best in the class and give out a $25 gift certificate for a local bookstore as the prize. The winners from all the eighth grade classes in the the county schools would compete for other prizes. The county winners would compete in a statewide contest for shares of Illinois Power Company stock, two shares worth about $100, a lot of money in my neighborhood. I had no real hope of winning, so I just wrote what I remembered from the trip.

In those days, I was not confident in my writing abilities, but I won the class prize, and my essay went on to the county contest. I was told it would take a while before all the judging occurred, and that the winner would be notified later. The school year ended, and I completely forgot about the contest. You know how kids are, their minds are only on what’s happening in the moment.

One day in the late summer, I was babysitting for my nephews when a man in a suit knocked on the door. He asked if I was Sandra DuBoise, and I said I was. I couldn’t imagine what a man in suit wanted with me. I stepped out on the porch, not wanting to invite a stranger into the house when no adults were home. He shook my hand, treating me like an adult, and said, “Do you remember entering the essay writing contest for the Illinois Power Company?” I said I did, and he said, “You won.” I said, “Yes, I know, I got a $25 gift certificate.” “No,” he said, “You won the county and the statewide contests. For the county prize, you get a lamp, a dictionary and a Thesaurus, and for the state contest, you get two shares of Illinois Power Company Stock. How does it feel to be a shareholder in the power company.”

That didn’t mean much to me as a young teenager, except that if I sold it, it was worth about $100, and if I kept it, it could be worth more money in the future. Living in the projects, no one talked much about investing in the stock market. Soon after that day, I dressed up in my Sunday best and put on my shoes (in the summer, we all went barefoot until school started again), and a photographer took my picture with my lamp and dictionary for the local newspaper. They interviewed me, and I have no idea what I said. I was a little bit of a celebrity for a minute or two, but life went on.

I graduated from high school with honors and received a scholarship to MacMurray, then a women’s college in Jacksonville, Illinois. I was number nine of 10 children, and the first one to get to college. What they didn’t mention about scholarships back then was that they don’t pay for everything. I tried to get a job in the little town, but all the jobs seemed to be taken by those who had been there the year before. I struggled with the financial piece, and was getting more and more depressed. The student counselor told me about loans to help with that, so I took out a loan because I just could not ask my family for money. They just didn’t have it. I had always worked for what I wanted since I was old enough to do odd jobs for people. I babysat, ironed clothes for neighbors, collected soda bottles for the two cent deposit and eventually worked in the city library, my favorite job. I didn’t like the idea of borrowing money either.

Eventually the stress of the money situation took its toll on my ability to concentrate on my studies, and I decided I should probably just leave school, get a job and start earning a living for myself. I didn’t know how that would happen. I didn’t even have enough money to get back home. I really didn’t want to go back home either, but believing in a benevolent God, I prayed for help to resolve the situation.
A few days later, I got a letter from my mother. That was unusual. She didn’t write often. In the letter was the stock certificate for the two shares of Illinois Power Company Stock. She wrote simply, “I thought you might need this right now.” My mother had always had a sixth sense about her children and seemed to know exactly what we needed when we needed it. She had come through for me again.

I asked someone at school how to sell the stock, and they said there was a local banker who could handle it. I went to see him, and he bought the stock for $100. I withdrew from college, bought a bus ticket to Houston, Texas, where my sister lived and began my journey with $50 in my pocket. 

I always thought it was fitting that a prize I had won for my writing paid for my ticket to the place where I would eventually create my writing life. 
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