As many of you know, I will be blogging in tandem with Nicole Acciaoli Emamuel this week. She started her blog several years ago, which was one of the main inspirations to begin my blog a year later. We decided to do a few blogs together this week and share some of the things we’ve learned along the way. We both hope you’ll enjoy the journey!
Of course we should probably start with a few questions: How do I know her? Where did this idea come from? What’s the plan? To answer these questions, I think it would be instructive to return to the very beginning…
I spent most of my first day of high school alone. The kids from Cooke Middle School and Meads Mill Middle School were reunited, and everyone seemed to know everyone else. Lumbering seniors patrolled the halls, at home in their element, while a puny kid sporting a spotty beard and some wisps of chest hair felt totally out of place. High school was not looking promising for me.
That was before Mister Dicks.
The last hour of that dreadful day found me traveling down the science hallway for Earth Science and a dose of the mysterious “Dicks.” I didn’t know who Dicks was – it was just a name on the first semester schedule. As it turned out, Dicks was a silver haired goon with an unnatural hatred of hats. The man most likely would have put an early end to my high school career if not for the posse that surrounded me.
At the table in front in front of mine sat the two Jennys. In true “it’s a small world” fashion, Jenny R. went on to marry the music coach of some of the most talented freshman students I have ever been privileged to teach. Behind us sat Sara from Australia, who kept the semester moving by giving us a daily concert countdown – “22 more sleeps until Megadeth!” And then, there was my table partner, Nicole Acciaoli.
A few things I remember about Nicole: after a brutal first day of High School, she was really kind to me. She seemed to be friends with everyone around us, and could start up a conversation with anyone. She frequently wore silk shirts, as did I (in 1992 silks were the height of fashion). And she was my ally in the battle against Mr. Dicks.
Mr. Dicks didn’t like me. I’m still not quite sure why – I really didn’t come out of my shell in his class, and never caused a ruckus. But I was a hat wearer. And he hated him some hats. In fact, he had banned them from his room altogether – you couldn’t even bring a cap across the threshold of his classroom. And believe me – he always kept an eye open to see if the hat-haired boys had a cap tucked away in their sweater or jeans.
One day, I was running a little late. Most likely I had been hitting on some of the young ladies in the class of 1996 – showing off my latest chin whiskers. While rushing to Earth Science, I realized that I was still sporting my brand new fitted Georgetown cap. Crap! Should I got back to my locker and take a tardy (and risk the wrath of Darlene, my rough and tough mama)? Or should I try to tuck the cap into the back of my trousers and sneak past Mr. Dicks? I decided to take the risk. I mean, could Dicks really notice every hat that came into his classroom? My money was on NO.
I slipped into the classroom and took my seat. Whew. No problems so far! I simply sat on my hat and started chatting with Nicole. I wish I could say where the conversation went – probably Nicole’s new manfriend (pretty sure she had 15 that semester ;), though the 21 intervening years leave me fuzzy. However, what came next isn’t fuzzy at all.
“Mr. Southwick – I’d like to see you at my desk.”
Uh, I didn’t even know that Mr. Dicks knew my name, and I am certain this conversation was our first ever chat. I glanced up and noticed he was looking down at his desk. I surreptitiously slipped my hat over to Nicole. “Hold this for me,” I whispered. My hat was precious – part of my freshman identity. I knew I could trust it with my lab partner. Nicole had my back.
As I walked to the desk of Dicks, I felt pretty confident. My hat was safe where he would never find it. Moreover, I had thwarted his ridiculous rule. If only my white sneakers (worn with black jeans, of course) hadn’t been squeaking quite so loudly as I walked to the front of the room.
Just as arrived at his desk, Mr. Dicks spoke again. “Miss Acciaoli, would you please throw Mr. Southwick’s hat in the trash for me?”
I looked back at Nicole. She looked up at me. Our eyes wide, she simply had to do as he asked. She walked to the front of the classroom, looked at me again, and tossed the hat into the metal basket. The clang reverberated in my ears.
I don’t even remember what Mr. Dicks talked to me about that day. I know that in that instant, he became my mortal enemy. Our epic battles would culminate in a yelling match in a packed hallway during my senior year. But that was years into the future. What I do remember about that day is how profusely Nicole apologized for throwing away the hat.
“I am so sorry, Derek! I didn’t know what to do!”
“It’s ok. It’s not your fault. He’s the…” Not really sure what choice word I used in that moment. I’m sure it didn’t do Mr. Dicks justice.
“But I feel SOOO terrible!”
“No really. It’s ok. I’m not mad at you at all! I promise!”
“OK. But I still feel bad…”
And with that, life swept onward. The epic journey to retrieve the hat is also a story for another day. And within a few months, a new semester began. I had a new class and a new lab partner, and Miss Acciaoli – the thrower-away-of-hats – became a memory. One semester became a year, which became all of high school, which became a decade and three years. I never had a conversation with Nicole again. Ever. I might have nodded my head at her in the hallway a time or two. Such is high school.
Facebook tells me that the first time we had contact was when we became friends in 2009 – my first conversation with Nicole since 1993. 16 years. Even then, it was a bit strange – who was this girl writing to tell me how beautiful my family is? I mean, I am a huge Facebook fan, and I love having contact with old friends, even if it is just to see picture of their families and lives. But it still can be weird sometimes, you know? Especially when the main memory you have of the person revolves around them throwing your hat away…
Then, a few years later, Nicole posted a link to her blog. I’m sure many of you have already read it, and were just as moved as I was. What an incomparable wordsmith. As I continued to read her words, I often found myself laughing and full of hope. Other times, I felt sorrowful, or even wistful. She toiled away to bring her words to the rest of us, reaching us in a way not possible a decade ago. She quickly assumed the role of the best-writer-I-personally-know, even though I still didn’t really know her. Moreover, she offered inspiration to someone who had put his own pen down years ago. Her blog made me want to write… but did I have the courage?
In December of 2012, I sent Nicole a message (via Facebook, that wonderful tool that connected us) to ask her about her blog. How did she start it? Why did she start it? Was it terrifying to put her thoughts out in the public sphere? Was it rewarding? What was her vision? When did she get so awesome at writing? The questions went on and on.
These were questions by a man in the midst of change – someone who had just switched careers and didn’t quite fit in yet. These questions came from the heart of someone who loved to write long ago, but let go of those dreams because that’s what you have to do when you are an adult in the workaday world. The questions came from a big, furry guy with a passion for telling tales above all else. I desperately wanted to tell stories, but I had no idea how to find an audience. Nicole was busy telling stories and making a difference. I had to ask her those questions. She was the only person I knew that was where I hoped to be.
Nicole encouraged me, gave me advice, and helped me find my voice. A few months later, I started the Furry Bard, my place to tell stories. Sometimes I feel a little bit embarrassed – I know I am not a skillful writer like Nicole or the multitude of other bloggers I now read and converse with. But I feel at home every time I hit “submit” on a new post. For that, I have Nicole to thank.
Blogging represents a huge community of diverse people from a multitude of backgrounds. Over the past year, I realized other high school classmates have their own blogs, as well as former students, friends, and arch enemies. Everyone has a story to tell, and the means with which to tell it. However, it often takes a catalyst, a brave person to show you the way or to offer a hand in help or encouragement.
I’m glad Nicole finally made up for throwing my hat away 🙂
I’m looking forward to a week of sharing some thoughts in our little corner of the blogging community.