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Becoming a Writer Redux

A friend asked me the other day whether I always knew I’d be a writer. I didn’t. I grew up in a family where English was a second language. My family were educated and cultured, they read a lot, but communication between the generations was halting at best. And though there were artistic people in my family, no one had chosen the challenging life of an artist. In a family of refugees, that would have been too risky.

It had never occurred to me that I could express myself in words, orally or in writing, until I got to college. I didn’t enjoy reading that much, either. I was shy, I never kept journals, and I was not self-reflective. As soon as I could get out of the house, I did. I roller skated, rode my bicycle, played stick ball, swam competitively. My primary interest was sport. Fresh air, physical freedom, the entitlement that boys seemed to enjoy. That’s what I wanted.

I went to two colleges and when I finally landed at a third—UC Berkeley, I began to grow intellectually and emotionally. And I met my husband there; we’re still married. He came from a family of writers—his uncle owned the Saturday Review of Literature, his dad was a famous journalist, his brother was a journalist—and he’d been in the U.S. Navy as a journalist. He wrote the ship’s newspaper and also some Billy Budd type short stories. He read them aloud to me and, of course, I thought they were marvelous.

I graduated ahead of my husband and then, ever practical as my parents insisted, stayed on for a post-grad year of teacher training. I have a California State Teaching License signed by Governor Ronald Reagan. It was issued “for life.” And though I later went on to graduate school, that first teaching license has allowed me to enjoy the benefits of a steady income as well as the pleasures of a teaching/writing life. Teaching fuels my writing and gets me away from the computer and the solitude of being a writer. Journalism fuels my fiction and literary nonfiction.

It was during a ten-year sojourn in London that I became a writer. My husband had the GI Bill and was enrolled at the Holborn School of Languages and then at the London School of Economics. I had taken a job in a secondary school in North London and I was in such culture shock most of the time, so heartbroken for the children I was teaching, that all I could do was write about it. Even the interview had been shocking. The Headmaster, a Mr. Bond (I tried not to giggle), told the others on the panel that I was perfect for the job as a remedial reading teacher because I was a New Yorker and knew about drugs. “Isn’t that true, Mrs. Bergman?” he asked. It was a rhetorical question.

On my first day at the school I was escorted to the staff room to wait for the Headmaster to show me around. It was smoky and hot, all the dirt-encrusted windows shut down. The teachers came and went, and then I was alone. The door swung open and there was a little outstretched black hand on the left of the door jamb and a long stick whacking it. This, I quickly learned, was a caning. After it was over—ten whacks, twenty?—the teacher holding the stick dismissed the young boy and came into the staff room. This was a ceremony. He took a ledger off the shelf and recorded the date, the number of whacks, and the infraction. I didn’t speak, I was speechless. Only after he left did I open the book to read what he had written, a Dickensian story.

That afternoon, I went into WH Smith and bought little orange notebooks to record my observations. I carried them everywhere, filling one a week, at least. Conversations, physical descriptions, interviews with my students and their parents. I fell in love with all my students and wanted to help them, somehow. I strung my observations into passionate, first person, outraged narratives. I submitted them and they were published, the beginning of my writing life. My husband had started writing for the London newspapers also and he got me a gig as a book reviewer, an excellent discipline as I had to write within a word count to deadline. Then I got another gig reporting on education and immigrant issues for the BBC. And so it went. I had become a writer.

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