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  • Writer's pictureCarolyn Steele Agosta

Reading, Writing, and No Arithmetic

My 49th day of quarantine. No, WAIT! I said NO ARITHMETIC!!!

So, back to reading.

When I was in fifth grade, I had the good fortune to be taught by Mrs. Gladys Buell, at Flanders Elementary School in Farmington, Michigan. Mrs. Buell was definitely not the image of a modern school teacher. She was, I’d guess, in her late fifties at the time, wore her hair in pigtails that got brought up and pinned to the back of her head, wore dresses about 20 years out of style, and black lace-up shoes. She’d had a stroke several years ago, as she told us on the first day of class, which left her face partially paralyzed. As a result, one eye dripped tears all the time, which she would constantly, unconcernedly wipe away. She also had no wrinkles on that side of her face, which kinda fascinated me.

I loved her.

She was a no-nonsense kind of teacher when it came to our behavior, but she was a very creative teacher when it came to our lesson plans. We learned all kind of different ways to do math, had fantastic science experiments, fun art activities, lots of history and geography done in interesting ways, and we sometimes got to hear about her early days, teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in the wilds of northern Michigan. I imagined her as our own personal Laura Ingalls Wilder.

And she read to us, every single day.

She liked to read children’s historical fiction and stories about other parts of the world. The Wheel on the School. The Sword in the Stone, Caddie Woodlawn, and my personal favorite, Janet Elizabeth Gray’s Adam of the Road. It’s a wonderful book, even for adults to read. It’s illustrated by Robert Lawson, who also illustrated Mr Poppers Penguins (which Mrs Buell also read to us).

It was Mrs. Buell who introduced me to those biographies I mentioned in an earlier blog post, biographies written for children. She captured my imagination and gave me an appreciation for a much wider range of literature. I was lucky enough to have Mrs. Buell as my teacher for sixth grade, as well. A good teacher is worth more than rubies.

The next teacher who had a strong impact on my reading choices was Miss Pieron at Farmington High School. During her class, sophomore year, we each had to select an author and read as many of their works as possible, and write a report at the end of the year. I couldn’t decide, and she suggested Thomas B. Costain. He’d written about a dozen historical fiction novels, and several historical non-fiction, and he turned out to be just the ticket for me. I discovered I really enjoyed historical fiction, when not didactic, and with lots of interesting fictional and non-fictional characters. My favorite of his books was The Tontine – usually published in two volumes. It’s the story of a life insurance lottery (a tontine) where only the last person alive wins the total payoff, and follows key characters through something like seventy years, during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Other historical fiction authors I’ve enjoyed include Mazo de la Roche, Inglis Fletcher, Jean Plaidy – well, I could go on an on, but maybe I’ll save it for another blog post.

Now – writing.

Yesterday morning, my husband went out to walk the dog and when he came back and saw me in front of the computer, still in my robe at 10 am, he said, “You haven’t moved?”

“I was writing,” I said with vast dignity. “My blog post. I’m being productive.”

He came and read over my shoulder. “Nothing about me, I see.”

And I replied, “Oh….well…now, you’re doomed.”

Let me tell you about my husband. Matt has always been very supportive of my writing. At first, I suspect he just thought – great, fine, keeps her out of trouble. I had begun work on a full-length novel (talk about jumping in the deep end of the pool), but later tried my hand at a short story. After Matt read it, he showed me a newspaper article about a short story competition in Charlotte. I entered the competition and won second price. I felt like I’d won the Pulitzer! Thanks to Matt.

Later, after I’d written my second novel, Every Little Step She Takes, Matt showed me an article in Wall Street Journal, about people who were successfully self-publishing on Kindle. I self-published, my book became reality, and although it’s no best-seller, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing people have read it, and been invited to speak about it at book clubs. Thanks to Matt.

When I began my third novel, The Pleasure of Your Company, I wanted to write it in ‘real time’ – that is, each chapter is dated, between November of 2008 and May of 2009, because the story is about three baby-boomer sisters dealing with the financial fallout of that period of time, and I wrote each chapter during those dates. Originally I posted each chapter online as I finished it, along with some kind of photo depicting something in that chapter. When I needed a photo of the Chick-fil-A cow, Matt battled his way through traffic and public derision to snap a picture of the cow who danced out by the interstate. That particular chapter got more ‘hits’ than any of the others. Thanks to Matt.

When I wrote a self-help book titled Organized and Loving It, one of Matt’s co-workers asked him, “So – is Carolyn real organized at home?”. To which Matt helpfully replied, “She writes fiction.” Believe me when I say that this was a very kind response. So, thanks, Matt.

I went through a period of time when I couldn’t write anything at all. Felt I was all written out. Matt pointed out a newspaper article about a book club at our local library. I joined the group and found it very rewarding in many ways, and it led directly to my decision to begin writing again. Thanks to Matt.

When I decided to write a book about camp meeting – a very Southern tradition that goes back to 1830 – Matt agreed to spend all of one Saturday driving around to my – er – directions so I could take photos of old houses, barns, churches, graveyards and the campground itself. Took all day. I plan to use these once I have the book finished and begin promoting it. Thanks, Matt.

Matt has learned to cope with a wife who is often absent-minded, disorganized, alternately optimistic and way down in despair, and who spends a lot of time at her computer. When he comes home and finds me draped across the couch with my arm thrown dramatically over my eyes, he knows what to think. I’m writing. When he finds me crabby for no discernible reason, the writing is going poorly. When I’m in a fantastic mood for no discernible reason, he knows the writing is going well. He maintains his equilibrium pretty well either way.

He tells his friends I’m a writer.

This is the thing. He doesn’t say, Oh, she likes to write. Or, Oh, her hobby is writing. He says, My wife is a writer. Proudly.

On top of all this, he’s a good kisser.

Thanks, Matt. Aren’t you sorry now you said anything?

So, that’s it. My reading, writing and no arithmetic for today. I hope it’s a good day for you.

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Unknown member
Oct 25, 2021

P.S.- I also wrote a children's book "The 20 Woodworking Tools Every Kid Should Have and Know How to Use." Maybe Mrs. Buell would be proud.....


Unknown member
Oct 25, 2021

Great article. I had the pleasure of having Mrs. Buell for my 6th grade teacher back in 1963. I agree with you that she was wonderful.

Unknown member
Oct 26, 2021
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We must have been!

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