I can’t think of my high school years of writing poetry without thinking of Don Wallis. He was the newspaper editor of my hometown’s local weekly, and he was also a creative writer. When I think of him, I remember flannel shirts, a voice that was low and never in a hurry. I picture him leaning back in his chair, considering. Though he was a busy man, and a father to three girls, Don volunteered to come in and meet with us—“us” being a diverse and small group of students who wanted to write poems. Maybe some of us wrote short stories? I just remember sitting in a classroom, gathered around a big table (we must have pushed some desks together), and talking about our poems: angst poems, love-riddled poems, poems full of longing and heartache. Don read and listened to all of it. He was the type of person who encouraged and suggested rather than tsk-tsked or flat out said something was bad or wrong or just not good enough. Everything had potential. Every piece we wrote had gold in it. I think all of us felt like real writers in Don’s presence. And so we were.
Sometimes I think there are two types of influencers in one’s life: the green-lighters—who show you the way forward, who open the door, who say yes despite a dozen reasons to say no—and the red-lighters, the stop signs of the world, the people who shake their heads or who tell you to quit while you’re ahead.
I was lucky. I had many green-lighters in my youth and in my life. Don was one of them.
As the years passed, when I would run into Don on the streets of my hometown—outside the coffee shop or outside the newspaper office—he always asked whether I was still writing. I always was. He never stopped encouraging me, and about a decade after I had graduated high school, he asked me to write an essay about my hometown for a communty magazine he was putting together. I said yes. That essay became my first published essay. Years later, I began writing more and more essays until I had a whole collection of them. I wonder now if that first one was where it all began.
Don died in 2012, but I’d like to think if I ran into him today on my hometown street, he’d be glad that, all these years after he sat with us huddled around a big classroom table, I’m still writing—essays, short stories, and yes, poems. I’ve got a new one up at Rust + Moth today. It isn’t about Don at all, but still, it is a poem about love and angst—two topics I loved in high school—and Don Wallis would have approved of it just because I wrote it (and for that I am grateful), so: this one’s for you.