Monday, September 26, 2011

My First Time: Tom Sheehan

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.   Today's guest is Tom Sheehan, the author of Brief Cases, Short Spans (Press 53, 2008) and Epic Cures (Press 53, 2005). He has been nominated for the Million Writers Award twice and the Pushcart Prize twelve times.  In addition, he has received a Silver Rose Award from American Renaissance for the Twenty-First Century (ART) and the Georges Simenon Award for Excellence in Fiction.  Epic Cures, his first short story collection, received a 2006 IPPY Award Honorable Mention.  In addition to short story collections, Sheehan has published three novels, five books of poetry, and three books of memoir and nonfiction.  He lives in Saugus, Massachusetts.

My First Reviewer

It all came back at the recent memorial brunch for John Burns, esteemed teacher, town icon, mentor.  I was in the same room where I had been 72 years earlier, in Marleah Graves’ second grade classroom of the Cliftondale School.  That earlier day was in May, the windows open, the smell of grass in the air, birds at their choir work.  And I had been directed by Miss Graves, with a comforting smile on her face, to deliver a story I had written.  It was not my first story.  Her directions were subtle challenges to go beyond ourselves.  I liked that; found I could talk easily in front of people.  My grandfather, Johnny Igoe, had been reading to me for a few years.  I caught his inflections, his words with handles, his sense of confidence.  They made up my comfort zone.

My story was about trains.  I was enamored of trains that came thundering through the crossings at Eustis Street, Essex Street and the quick elbow at School Street where the coal company was located.  Each crossing was in my wander range, not too far for a second grader just moved months earlier from a second-floor flat in Charlestown right beside the urban Main Gate of the Navy Yard.  That’s where my father babysat me on a number of occasions aboard the Old Ironsides when my mother went shopping.  As a Marine he was often Charge of Quarters of that grand ship berthed at the Charlestown Navy Yard.

That part of Charlestown where we lived had no trees, no trains, no fields.  Saugus was a great change.  The freight cars coming past me in parts of Cliftondale carried the huge legends of their points of origination, carried the romantic names of elsewheres that so intrigued me…The Boston & Maine, The Rock Island Road, The Route of the Phoebe Snow, The Yazoo Valley and the Mississippi, The Alleghany and the Susquehanna.  Those names in great white letters wrapped me in adventure and romance of the road, the open spaces.  It was a quick entry, in writing, enabling me to go someplace else.

All which brings me to the little circle of tiny green chairs gathered at the front of the classroom.  We would sit there or stand by our chair if we preferred and read, one at a time, selected or suggested or composed pieces that Miss Graves insisted that we deliver out loud.  She wanted us to get used to speaking up front, to have fun while learning something new, to progress.

From a piece of math paper, about 6x9 inches, I read my story to my classmates and to my teacher.  I liked to do that.  I was comfortable.  I wanted so much to please Miss Graves above all things because somehow she would get that word to my mother and father.  That connection intrigued me because I had never seen them talk to each other, but they knew things.

From a classmate in the circle of little green chairs, I received the first unsolicited review of one of my creations.  The girl sitting beside me, her name was Dorothy, jumped up and kissed me on the cheek when I finished.  It was, I knew, an acceptance of my work.  It had passed muster, I assumed, because I have never forgotten that editorial decision.

Dorothy, sad to say, has gone elsewhere, as have the trains that pounded down the tracks across Eustis and Essex and School Streets, from all those romantic places I used to dream about and write about.  But at the day of John Burns’s memorial brunch was another classmate of that first memorable day.  I assume that she has not remembered my first review as I have, for she did not mention it.

Tom and Dorothy: 2nd grade class, 1937, at the Cliftondale School

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