It All Started at Pitt
The first time I stayed away from home by myself was when I went to the freshman orientation in Oakland in 1974. Even though Pitt was only about twenty-five miles from my coal-mining hometown in Washington County, it seemed light-years away to me. I was a sheltered seventeen-year-old, living alone with my illiterate seventy-five-year-old adopted father, who couldn’t understand why a girl needed an education.
Pitt was like a dream to me, a dream of liberation. Even though I was a voracious reader, I had never had a library card before. I would spend hours browsing the stacks at Hillman Library, marveling at the thousands of books available to me. My father would shake his head in bewilderment when I would come home laden with notebooks and textbooks and spend the evenings typing out term papers on my trusty Royal typewriter or reading with a highlighter attached to one hand. There was nothing better than being a student.
During the winter break of 1975, my father died of black lung disease, leaving me orphaned a week before my nineteenth birthday. But it never crossed my mind not to return to Pitt. I carried on, filling the lonely hours with more books and papers. In 1976, I was accepted into the School of Social Work. As a junior, I found that I liked to write even if it wasn’t for a class. Some of my poems were published in the Black Action Society newspaper. Most of my final term was spent doing Independent Study, writing papers about social problems and issues that interested and intrigued me. One day, Dr. Anne Jones asked me if I had ever thought about becoming a writer. Such an idea had never crossed my mind. Writers were those esteemed individuals who filled the stacks at Hillman Library or the impassioned professors that conducted my elective literature classes. As a freshman, one of my Black Studies literature teachers had told me that I could not write about my “black experience” because I grew in an integrated coal mining camp of 500 people. What would I write about?
But I never forgot her comment. I spent almost twenty years working in social services, even after moving to Northern California ten years after graduation. In California, I started to write book and concert reviews and op-ed pieces, even getting some of them published. I liked seeing my byline, which even appeared in Astronomy. For four years I was the Communications Coordinator for the National Association of Social Workers, California Chapter, combining my loves of writing and social work. In 2004, I received a MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. My final manuscript was a 150-page collection of essays about growing up in a coal mining town in western Pennsylvania, embracing the heritage that was deemed to be “not black enough” in 1974.
In April 2011, Dr. Jones died at the age of 89. Even though I only saw her once after my 1978 graduation, her words have stayed with me for over thirty years. I often wonder if I would have become a writer if she had never asked me that question. In August 2012, my first novel, Three Chords One Song, was published as an eBook. In the final chapter, one of the characters donates a large sum of money to the University of Pittsburgh, doing fictionally what I will never be able to do in real life. I still proudly wear my Pitt class ring, which has been on my finger since I received it in 1977. I will never be able to repay what Pitt gave to me – the chance to learn, to dream, and the confidence to write it all down.