How & Why I Became a Writer: PART 2 – by Deborah Levine

My pride, and a touch of arrogance, in having aced Advanced Placement AP English lasted about five minutes on campus. Harvard frowned on freshmen who hadn’t achieved at least 4 out 5 on the AP English exam, and I’d received only 3. Humility sank in as I sat in an ancient lecture hall with hundreds of freshman and took a required writing exam. I flunked.

Who knew they put the essay answers in the back of the exam book? If you hadn’t looked through all the paperwork before writing, you failed. Failure, which Harvard equated with stupidity, meant a remedial writing course for which you received no credit. We wrote constantly for the long-suffering graduate student in charge. I remember failing the assignment demonstrating a sense of humor. I had none.

I also remember my one private conversation with that grad student. I’d written an essay on the series, The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell. He said, “Do you realize that Durrell is never assigned reading for freshman – or any undergraduate?” Really? Dad’s books I found lying around the house? “You’re not the average Harvard freshman. Let that sink in.”

I ignored him. So what if I was the only the only 18-year old taking classes at Harvard Divinity School? Big deal if the Dean told me I was accepted because I was interesting. She also told me to get over it, which I soon did. When I got sick and had to take a year off, “average” started to look like an improvement. Illness was a revelation. Living at home, I worked as a research correspondent at Chemical Bank, unenthusiastically writing letters to shareholders about their stock. I finally finished my senior year at New York University. The good news was that NYU gave me a full year’s credit for that remedial writing course. The bad news was that I ended up as a secretary in New York’s garment district after graduation. I wrote letters and made coffee, lots of coffee.

Yet, aspirations again rose to the surface when I heard the siren’s call of an urban planning masters degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. My husband and I, plus our adorable toddler, became impoverished graduate students living in a 2-room dorm unit. A friend from my dancing days suggested that a UCLA fellowship researching my first love, Baroque dance, would help pay the bills. He relentlessly edited my submission to the academic journal, Society of Dance History Scholars. When I finally presented the paper at the Society’s national conference two years later, I stood beaming next to the world-famous ballerina Maria Tallchief. “What a lovely hobby this writing thing is!”

Coming back down to earth, the reward for finishing my masters degree was a frantic search for a decent job. Please put me in charge of something, anything! I pounced on the ad for a grant writer at Maria Tallchief’s Chicago City Ballet. Turns out the Ballet was on the verge of bankruptcy. Their desperation meant the Development Director title for me!

The Ballet’s offices was empty except for a director and a receptionist, her mother. I researched endless filing cabinets to understand why. When the board members met, I explained why the Ballet had a snowball’s chance in Hell of ever getting grant funding again. That prompted a creative response far beyond my comfort zone. My dilemma sank in when they said, “No worries! You’ll get free legal counsel if you end up in court.” My father, Chief Financial Office of Hebrew Union College, almost fell off his chair laughing. “Look for another job!”

I ran home to the Jewish community and became the director of Jewish-Christian dialogues for the American Jewish Committee. They hired me based on my coursework at Harvard Divinity School, growing up a the only Jewish little girl in Bermuda, and the fact that no one at AJC would touch this job. I sat in my new office and stared at the blank wall. It sank in that I had no professional experience, no training, and no idea of what I was doing.

Amidst the haze of self-doubt, a tall figure in priestly garb appeared at the door. The Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski, Vatican-trained diplomat and a founding member of the US Holocaust Commission, said the magic words, “I’ve brought books to help you in your new role.” A true friendship, now going on thirty years, was born that day.

The next time I sat in my office staring at the wall, I got a call from the publishing arm of the Chicago Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The editor was a friend from the Workshop project. He had a proposal that would jump start my writing career. Self doubt shimmered at the edges, but maybe there is such a thing as fate. I let the possibility sink in.

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