Catching Up: Portrait of the Activist as a Young Woman

Maybe you’ll like this. I did, when I dredged it up from a subterranean file of writing I’d forgotten about. I didn’t forget this girl, though.

A.T. was a favourite student of mine, and Number One Babysitter of Son the Fourth when he was “the world’s happiest child”. In a writing class I was taking, not teaching, I was assigned to interview somebody interesting, and I chose a chubby, bespectacled grade 11 with a great brain, lovely brown eyes and a lethal wit. She still writes, but the activist appears to have won out: she’s spent the past half-dozen years doing development work with an NGO in Africa. She’s come a long way from Caledonia.

I always wanted to be Jann Arden”, says A.T., a 16 year old high school student, “but I can’t sing.  I guess I’ll be a writer–what else can I do?” A. even looks a little like Arden, and has the same intelligence and self-deprecating wit, although her self-possession suggests she will not have to go through the same depressing chemical adventures in seedy bars. Here’s hoping, anyway.

An only child (a gentle iconoclast right from the womb), she nonetheless has loads of family history, blithely speaking and writing about her father’s recent marriage to “the fourth Mrs. J. T.”. From her mother, and especially her father, she has inherited a fine mind and a love for reading, which grew quickly into a gift for writing that was evident as early as age 6; an aunt still treasures a bound and typed collection of A.’s stories written during primary school. Though she is well-liked by numerous friends, A. is affected far less by the herd instinct, so evident in high school, than most kids are. Her mother’s “little activist” (“not that I ever acted against anything!” she snorts) refuses to wear brand-name clothing, or to use recreational chemicals, or to pretend she’s stupid, yet manages in her quiet way to get along with most people (“except the jocks who think they’re so superior to everyone”).

I began to get past A.’s unassuming classroom persona as I read her assignments in my writing class, some of the most stylish and funny student writing I’ve ever encountered. Praise makes her uncomfortable, but she is beginning to recognize that she does have unusual ability. She has long felt sure that she’d be a writer–“it’s the only thing I’m good at”–but remains diffident about what she’ll do, beyond knowing that she’ll attend university, probably for Journalism. Prodded to assess her writing, she says, “Everything’s breezy; that’s the way things are with me” and then wonders how she’ll be funny about “dead babies in Iraq”.

Humour is her best weapon, she says, and she uses it well. In the course of our interview, I nodded with appreciation of her insights about high school and family life, perceptions that most young people don’t have at her age will never have. I also laughed with delight at her darting and engaging wit. She’s a talented and wry observer, but tends on the whole to be kind. It’s refreshing.

A reader, a writer, a concerned world citizen with a touch of the clown, A. is an interesting young person.  We concluded our interview with a few questions about her assessment of her own personality.

“Confident?”             “I pretend that I am.”

“Focussed?”             “No.  I have to wade through all the unimportant stuff that’s all around to get to the important stuff in front of my face.”

“Intelligent?”           “Yeah, I can answer Millionaire.  I don’t get as many on Jeopardy, but I’m gettin’ there!”

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