Saturday, February 11, 2012

Write Your Life

In April 2011 I took a course at a local continuing ed center  “Write Your Life.”   The very first in-class assignment was to write your life story in three pages (in about 20 minutes)...this is what I wrote.
Television was my family. The first thing I did when I came into the empty house was turn on the TV and then the dark and scary room was filled with company — people talking, laughing, singing, selling — comforting words and sounds from Father Knows Best, Leave It To Beaver, The Donna Reed Show. Each show provided a family that was always there.

Years later when I was taking the National Teacher Examinations (now called Praxis)  I had to answer this essay question: “If you had to choose only one object for people to find 100 hundred years from now that would give insight to our society, what would it be?”  People wrote many things.  Often the answer was “a television” but I knew that wouldn’t work.  In a hundred years the technology would be so changed that no one would know what a "television" was or what it was used for.
[Remember this was in 1988 pre-digital, pre-EVERYTHING.]  
My answer? A TV Guide   that small, compact, thick volume that used to come in the mail once a week or could be purchased at a newsstand or even borrowed from a neighbor next-door.  The TV Guide was a window on our world and it wasn't a very flattering picture.  Future generations could read it and know how we frittered our time away on game shows, soap operas, detective stories and more. Like some people read the Bible, for years and years I read the TV Guide from cover to cover. And then one day it disappeared and was replaced by those onscreen channel guides.

When I was just out of college and working at Random House and thinking of how I’d change the world, I came up with the idea for an educational program for schools — TVS: Television Viewing Skills.  No one seemed focused on teaching kids to be active watchers instead of passive viewers. I’d spent so much of my time watching TV that I worried how it was influencing children.  

Another idea on how-to-change-the-world, was a program to help women in prison learn the basic life skills they’d need when they got out — buying and cooking nutritious foods, balancing a checkbook, managing a household — all the skills I’d been taught in home economics but it seemed these women had missed that class.  I even wrote to Dr. Jean Harris (of The-Madeira-School-Dr-Tarnower-Scarsdale-Diet infamy) while she was imprisoned at Bedford Hills and working with incarcerated mothers. I asked for her advice on my proposal.  She graciously wrote back that the idea was a good and necessary one but gently suggested that I might want to rethink the name, as prison officials were unlikely to respond positively to anything entitled Break-Out.

I became a classroom teacher.  I loved that first class of mine — all thirty-one 5th and 6th graders at PS 145 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  Not the fashionable Upper West Side but the gritty, crack-neighborhood-projects-with-drug-dealers west side where half my kids came to school asleep and hungry because they’d stood outside on the street until 11pm.  When I asked "Why"? they said, "cause the customers don't want no kids in the apartment while they buy their drugs."  Like me, once school was out, they came home to an empty place and day in, day out, night after night, they too were losing themselves in television. It was then that I told them, Turn Off the TV. Open a Book. Write Your Thoughts. Talk About Your Dreams. Someone is paying attention.

Our next assignment (that same night) was now to write your life story in one page, no more, no less.
I was born in Jersey City, the youngest in a family of five. Working middle-class parents with a dad who had been abused and rarely showed us any emotions other than bitterness and rage; a mother who loved us unconditionally, kept us together and going; a sister who often ran away and gravitated toward boys; and a brother who started with petty thievery that escalated to juvenile detention centers, jails, and ultimately, prisons — usually around the holidays.  I became a Miss-Goody-Two-Shoes  and when all my good behavior got me nothing at home  sought the attention of my teachers.  I learned to ingratiate myself to others and always did for them what I would not do for myself — anything and everything.  This way-of-being became a second skin that now, fifty years later, I am trying to shed.

I have been an editor, teacher, video producer, assistant director, program coordinator, daughter, wife, sister, mother-of-twins, thrift-store shopper, collector of unlikely treasures, and creator of a program that gets kids to be more honest, compassionate, reflective students who value civic-engagement and service.

One day, when I finally grow up and this past is behind me, I’m going to take my program on the road and make a difference in how we educate students by giving them an intentional, repetitive, and frequent focus on how to build their character  because to me, it's just as important as the reading, writing, and math.

At the same time, I’m going to tell my stories and see if there’s an audience out there who might be listening.

Tales From Denise James

A series of creative non-fiction pieces written over time, 
reflecting on the episodes of my life.


  1. We are listening, and quietly enjoying.

  2. This is Oscar material! Silvia Plath and Ayn Rand would read out.

  3. I too am listening; the youngest in a family of seven who came home to an empty house every day to my family of Dark Shadows, the gothic soap opera of the late 60s, The Andy Griffith Show, Bewitched, The Brady innumerable distinct TV families, I can relate! I had always needed the TV on, didn't matter if I was watching it or not. It has been the soundtrack of my life. And I think for me, that passive voice nurtured by years of quietly watching TV has awoken and wants it's say, wants to hear it's own story, and so it writes it, and like you will tell it, even if it is to an audience of one. We can hear you!

    1. That is a wonderful phrase,"the soundtrack of my life" and i completely identify Selene! for decades the first thing i did was to turn on the TV whenever i came home---long after i was living with my family. it was (and in some ways still is) a great comfort to me. good luck with your blog!

  4. Wonderfully honest, as always. I love the Jean Harris detail. And I understand the impulse towards shedding skin--perhaps this is what the second half of life--if we're so lucky to get there--is all about.

    1. yes, if we are lucky enough to live & enjoy the second half...thanks marge.

  5. Yes, that was me too. Coming home to an empty apartment and turning on the TV. But for me, in the mid 60's in New York, the lure was old movies. Two or three of our local channels had movies that came on around 4pm (this was before they created programming for every time of day and just plugged in 'filler').
    I watched tons of black & white 'B' movies from the 30's and 40's that you just don't see anymore ('Beyond A Reasonable Doubt' with Dana Andrews comes to mind). It was an odd but delicious escape from my 'real world'.