Mrs. Reed, my high school English teacher, sang in the choir of the First Methodist Church with my grandmother, so when she caught me reading Max Dimont's Jews, God and History instead of the assigned novel, The Vicar of Wakefield, during silent reading period and demanded to know, "Does your grandmother know you are reading that?" she assumed my grandmother would disapprove. What Mrs. Reed did not know was that along with her Bible and monthly Literary Guild selections, my grandmother read True Detective magazine and pornographic paperbacks, which she stashed under the bed she did not share with my grandfather. When I snarled back, "I doubt she'd care," I found myself in a familiar seat outside the guidance counselor's office, where I sat reading Jews, God and History while he talked on the telephone. Accustomed to my presence there, he was as unconcerned about it as he was my reading material.
My porno-reading grandmother insisted that my siblings and I go to college, something my mother had not done. She dropped out of high school at 17 because she was pregnant and married my father. My grandmother, however, had attended a year of college at the University of Iowa. When she applied she was asked to prove her citizenship. Born before Indians could be citizens of the United States of America, she'd had to find witnesses to her birth in Tahlequah, the seat of the Cherokee Nation, and file for an official birth certificate. As a resident of New Mexico, where her family had moved when she was nine, she was required to take a test proving that she could speak English. Because she laughed when she told these stories, so did I. But I didn't find them funny; I'm not sure she always did either.
During one of my frequent trips to the guidance counselor's office, I saw an announcement on the bulletin board outside his office. Essay Contest: $250 to be applied toward tuition at the college of the winner's choice.
The topic: Is truth beauty?
Applicants needed a letter of recommendation from their English teacher, so with caution I approached Mrs. Reed, telling her that I remembered the concluding lines about truth and beauty from "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which we had read earlier in the year. She dismissed me with a snort. "You can't win. You don't have a chance." I desperately wanted to go to college, and I knew I was not going to earn a National Merit Scholarship as my older sister had.
But I was determined. First I stole a piece of letterhead from the school office, where I had once worked as an office aid, typed up a letter on my grandmother's Remington Deluxe, then went to Roswell's Carnegie Library on W. Third St. and checked out a book of poetry by Keats along with Walter Jackson Bate's biography of the poet.
I wrote and mailed off my essay on truth and beauty. Not for one moment did I consider the irony of submitting it along with the letter I had forged in support of myself. Nor did I consider the consequences if I won. As it turned out Mrs. Reed was right about one thing: I didn't win the scholarship. But she was wrong about the most important thing. I did have a chance. And I took it.