Elegy to Andy … and his teacher
Nov. 17, 2011
By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“When I was in high school, I had an English teacher who told me I was a good writer, so I set out to become a writer myself.”
Andy Rooney shared this insight in his 1,097th and final essay for the news program, “60 Minutes,” broadcast for Oct. 2, 2011. I watched it online, not realizing Rooney had so little time left in the newsroom of life. He passed away Nov. 4 at age 92.
My husband and I gave up television in 1994. Cable and satellite, with their gazillion stations, held no particular attraction. The explosion in programming, in our view, provided overwhelming quantity that seemed to erode overall quality. Commercial frequency increased, making even well written storylines harder to follow with interruptions every 12 (or is it nine?) minutes.
I knew I’d miss one television show: “60 Minutes.” Can you hear the tick, tick, and tick? I’d especially miss weekly doses of, “A Few Minutes with Andy Rooney.” I watched him dutifully for years. Something about his writing and nasally, Albany-accented voice resonated.
“60 Minutes” first appeared in 1968 when I was 3-years-old. The news program taught me about the war in Vietnam, thalidomide babies and homosexuality. A 1989 segment on Alar temporarily altered my relationship — and perhaps that of many Americans — with apples (the Environmental Protection Agency has since banned Alar use on food crops.).
I remember sitting on the floor beside my father on Sunday evenings watching “60 Minutes” together, his hand resting atop my head. Despite limited formal education, dad possessed an inherent interest in history and politics. He followed the news, with a little help from Walter Cronkite and the crew at “60 Minutes.”
Even as a little kid, I remember enjoying Rooney’s essays. His funny, leprechaun-like appearance, with bushy eyebrows caught my eye. His stories — about war, the economy and quirky consumer trends — captured my youthful attention.
Rooney was cantankerous and sometimes snide. He managed to sum up the frustrations of the everyman, the workaday person just trying to get ahead…or simply stay afloat. He did it with sharp wit and humor. I didn’t always agree. However, I respected his mastery of getting his point across, however blunt.
Perhaps Rooney’s most significant message is the one conveyed in his final essay: a teacher told him he was good at something. External affirmation fueled what would become his life’s work, that of a writer.
I am reminded how very important is it for each of us to dig deeply to find those things we are good at. All too often, our weaknesses stare us in the face in the morning mirror. I can list only too well the things I am utterly lousy at: math, computers, skiing, fashion, interior decorating and small talk at cocktail parties.
As we bumble our way through life, we owe certain indebtedness to those who see a glimmer of talent in us and actually identify it — sometimes pointing out what we ourselves have been unable to see.
Several years ago, I took a writing class just for fun. I wrote an essay about teaching Allen Brook School students about spiders as an ELF (now Four Winds) volunteer. To my surprise, the instructor encouraged me to submit the homework assignment for publication. Emboldened, I sent it off to the Williston Observer as a proposed guest column.
The then-editor called me up and asked, “Are you a writer?”
Surprised by the question, I answered, “No, actually, I’m a mom.”
The editor told me I was a good writer. No one ever said that to me before. I’ve since learned that I can be a writer and a mom.
I don’t aspire to Rooney’s stature and fame. I aspire to pass on the gifts of acknowledgment given to me.
My invitation to you — when you recognize that sparkle of potential in someone, point it out. You just might do for someone what Andy Rooney’s teacher did for him.