HOW MY LOVE OF LITERATURE IMPACTED THE DECISION THAT CHANGED MY LIFE

Brenda S. Williams
9 min readOct 31, 2023

What do Edward Allan Poe, O. Henry and Edwin Arlington Robinson have to do with the decision that changed my life forever? Let’s just say instead of invoking Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken”, let us substitute the word “not” for the word “finally”.

As a female youngster growing up in the mid-forties, fifties and sixties, I became acutely aware of who I was, how my parents fit into the context of society and how my future could or would evolve. I came to the understanding that my parents were middle class folks, who between them, held two and three jobs in order to provide a better life not only for themselves but most importantly for their two children. We were the Negro Middle Class. Living in the North we felt fortunate, perhaps even privileged to have escaped the everyday atrocities of the Jim Crow South, and therefore my brother and I were assured of a bright future. In fact, my mother’s retort was, “We are working this hard so that you and your brother won’t have to”. College was definitely the brass ring that my brother and I aspired to. Having inherited visual art genes from his father and grandfather, there was no question that my brother’s college plans would include some aspect of art. I, having no particular talent however, and being female, was expected to follow a path of teaching or nursing. Dad used to say, “You will always be able to find a job as a nurse or teacher.”

And so, at an early age, I decided that nursing would be my chosen profession. After all, didn’t I always take good care of my younger brother when he caught colds? Was I not careful to properly tuck him in under heavy blankets, make sure he had an ample supply of tissues, spoon out cherry flavored cough syrup, and rub his chest with thick Vicks Vapor Rub?

Fast forwarding to senior high school, I quickly joined the Future Nurses Club which provided me the opportunity to volunteer in the local hospital. I loved the atmosphere of the hospital with all of the professional looking doctors and nurses looking content, happy, and busy whether lunching in the cafeteria or attending to their patients. I loved talking to the patients, giving them fresh water and rubbing their backs with fresh smelling baby powder. Oftentimes I would just sit quietly with them as they watched afternoon television game shows or soap operas. Volunteering in the Pediatrics Department was equally satisfying as I read to the little ones or held the hands of those who felt abandoned and afraid; they did not understand why their parents couldn’t stay with them all day.

As a first- generation college-bound female, my family knew something, but not enough about preparation for college. They did know enough to ensure that I was in a college preparatory program, but little about choosing an appropriate college major or career. I excelled in English and Foreign Languages, did well enough in History, but was a miserable student in Math and Science classes to include the dreaded Algebra, Geometry, Biology and Chemistry. With no real guidance from school counselors who had caseloads of two hundred fifty each, and whose job descriptions differed greatly from those of the counselors today, I erroneously thought I could hold onto my lofty goal of becoming a nurse. Neither my parents nor I understood the connection between subject strengths and the connection to future careers. Perhaps we should have known but we did not! Consider the context of the times and our status.

It follows that when it came time for me to fill out college applications, I declared a major in nursing on all three of my applications. My dutiful parents were only too happy to drive me to campus visits and interviews which included one university in Massachusetts, and two in Connecticut. With my transcript in hand, off we went. After looking over my transcript however, each admissions officer informed us that I would not qualify for the nursing program, and only one encouraged me to change my major to some aspect of the Humanities at which time I would be enthusiastically considered for admission. However daunting this news was, I was steadfast; I wanted to become a nurse.

As luck would have it, the mother of one of my former classmates thought a nursing program in one of the Historically Black Colleges would be just the right choice for me. After all, these colleges were known to have built-in support systems for all of their students. And so, my mother and I were invited to afternoon Sunday Tea at the home of a family who had as weekend guests, the Chaplain and his wife from one of the more well known and prestigious Historically Black Colleges. The purpose of this invite was to introduce me to this couple; for it was thought that this college would be ideal for me in order to realize my dream of becoming a nurse. As a result of this meeting, and as a result of details that followed, I was assured of being accepted into the Nursing program with the condition that I do well in Freshman Advanced Math, Biology, and Physics. (I never understood the rationale behind the Physics but understood the Biology and Chemistry). I was also assured that there would be support counseling and tutoring; and the Chaplain and his wife even offered me a private room in their off-campus home where I could have a very private and quiet place to study. And so, I became an HBCU first-year student. Frightened to death, for the college was located in the state of Virginia and I had never been to the South.

One day, the Dean of the English Department addressed a group of freshmen, of which I was a member, during a Freshmen Orientation Session. His presentation was riveting and I was fascinated! Immediately after, I couldn’t get to a telephone fast enough to tell my parents that I had decided to major in English. There was only one problem……I would have to teach it. Remember, with little knowledge of careers, and being female, what else would I do with an English major? My mother’s reaction was, “I don’t care what you major in as long as you’re out in four years as your brother will be ready for college.”

With a Bachelor of Science Degree in English and enough credits to warrant a double major in French, I landed a job teaching both subjects in a junior high school. I lasted two years in one school and one- and- one- half years in another school, at which time I came to the conclusion that teaching was not for me. Not surprisingly, I found disciplining students an arduous task, and was deflated every time I heard students utter the sentences, “Do we have to study grammar today?”, or “This is boring” or “Why can’t we read something more interesting than The Red Badge of Courage?” To add to that, the papers that I had so carefully corrected and graded were immediately balled up and thrown away minutes after seeing the grade….good or bad.

One day I came up with the bright idea to give my students something more challenging and perhaps more interesting to read; something more thought provoking. I only remember preparing to teach Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat” or O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” or Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem, “Richard Cory”. After all, each was short, and Poe and O. Henry had always been my favorite short story writers. “Richard Cory” was my favorite poem and also thought-provoking. I seem to recall that “The Gift of the Magi” won out, but more importantly I did not hear the common refrain, “This is boring”. Rather, the students were engaged in the discussion in the classroom; so engaged that a group of students showed up after school to continue the discussion which had begun in class. I remember that I assembled a few chairs in a circle which included the students and me, and I was astonished at not only their interest in reading this piece of literature but also astonished by their sometimes brilliant insights. As for me, I thought it was the best thing ever to sit and listen to students talk about their ideas and thoughts, unencumbered by “Can I go to the bathroom”, or “I don’t have a pencil”. No longer did I have to instill discipline; they were self-disciplined. I was able to see them as more than students, but as enjoyable young people. Conversely, I’d like to think they saw me as not just their teacher but as someone with an affable and interesting persona as well.

One might think that this event catapulted me into a life-long career in teaching. However, this was just one moment in time. As enjoyable as it was, I had a great epiphany for; interestingly enough, the day following my most enjoyable interaction to date with my eighth- grade students, I received a barrage of complaints from parents who thought my choice of literature was “too adult” for their not-yet-mature-enough eighth graders. They required instead that I continue to teach stories in the chosen anthology which were stories about animals and “Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water type stories.” And what about “The Red Badge of Courage” with its well- worn pages that failed to hide the wear and tear of overuse after being passed down from generation to generation. That still worked did it not?

Adding to my initial epiphany, was the image of the Guidance Counselor for the girls who would saunter into the Teacher’s Lounge to use the Ladies Room and saunter out as if she had no place to go that required her to walk swiftly. I on the other hand worked feverishly to get English papers corrected before the bell rang indicating that my “free” period was over and I had better be in my classroom by the start of the next bell indicating that class was to begin. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit and converse with students all day, to get to know them better, to help them with their future plans and dreams, to relax and laugh once in a while.?

During the December holiday that occurred shortly after my epiphanies, I arrived at the conclusion that I would resign my teaching position and pursue a Master’s Degree in Student Personnel Services/Guidance and Counseling. My supportive husband encouraged me to resign by saying, “If you feel you’d be happier doing something else, well quit.” It must be mentioned that we had just purchased wall-to-wall custom drapes in our large living room and bedroom in our first one- bedroom apartment. “Are you sure” I said. A resounding “Yes” was his answer. And so, immediately after the December holiday break, I handed in my resignation and January 31st was the end of my teaching career. My wonderful colleagues gave me a going away party at a local restaurant and I looked forward to a new career. Upon completion of my Master’s Degree in Student Personnel Services/Guidance and Counseling I was fortunate enough to secure an internship at my former local high school which led to a permanent full-time position which lasted thirty-two wonderful, fulfilling years as a Guidance Counselor and as the Director of Guidance the last eleven years before my retirement. Resigning my teaching position to become a School Counselor was the single best decision that changed my life. Never have I experienced a single regret, never have I regretted giving up my dream to become a nurse. Rather, the career that I stumbled upon was the career that was meant for me. I still have a love of literature but I discovered that I don’t have to teach it! I still have a love for students, the good the bad and the ugly. Each has something interesting and maybe even delightful about his personality, once she or he feels that they can trust you and that you like them and want the best for them. My eighth -grade students who sat in a circle with me that afternoon, after that one class, taught me that lesson; and I will be forever grateful for them. The road finally taken keeps me involved even today as I continue my membership in the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and subscribe to numerous college newsletters. And, I continue to be brought to tears each time I witness parents dropping their children off at the beginning of each college year, especially if they are first-year students. I still delight in witnessing college graduations whether in person or digitally….I guess my career in “everything college” is and will always remain in my blood.

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