Do you remember the person who inspired you the most?
I am not referring to a role model, writer, or historical figure. Think of the teacher, parent, mentor or friend who recognised a particular talent you possess and who, by encouraging you to pursue it, helped define the person you went on to become. She or he might have been an influential figure in your formative years, or they might have made their entrance later in life, as happened in Merrion’s case.
Merrion was a mature-age student in her early thirties when she decided to take a course in children’s literature at university, mainly because she wanted to learn about books that would interest her inquisitive seven-year old daughter. The year was 1978; the university was Flinders, in South Australia.
Shortly after starting the course, Merrion was shocked to discover that one of her assignments entailed writing a children’s book. Not because the task was too difficult, but because she thought it would be too easy – not the type of assignment she was expecting to do in this highly demanding, academic course. This assignment proved to be one of the hardest she ever completed, and through the process she developed new respect for children’s authors. The end result was a four and a half page story that she called ‘Hush the Invisible Mouse’.
She never intended to do anything with this assignment after submitting it, apart from perhaps reading it to her daughter. Her lecturer, however, was so impressed by it that she urged her to try to have it published. Her lecturer showed such faith on the story that Merrion decided to follow her advice. Little did she know this would be the start of a five year odyssey during which she sent the story (accompanied by illustrations done by a friend, Julie Vivas), to publisher after publisher, receiving rejection after rejection.
The tenth publisher accepted it, but asked her to make major changes including cutting the story by two thirds, rewriting what was left of it in a more lyrical style and changing the mice to another species altogether! Finally in 1983, under the name Mem Fox, she published her book with the new title ‘Possum Magic’.
‘Possum Magic’ has gone on to sell millions of copies, becoming and remaining the most popular and best selling picture book in Australia. To this day, Mem Fox acknowledges the teacher who encouraged her, Felicity Hughes, whenever she tells the amazing ‘story behind the story’ of Possum Magic.
Sometimes all it takes is for one person to believe in you.
In my lifetime I have received encouragement and inspiration from a great many people – educators, family, friends, employers, and even people I hardly knew. But one of my earliest memories in that regard is that of my fourth grade teacher, Miss Sarah.
When I was eight years old, instead of the customary apple, I gave Miss Sarah a poem entitled ‘To my teacher’. I never expected she would carry on about it as much as she did. She was so thrilled she insisted that I present it at the Teacher’s Day assembly, which was a whole school event.
Back then, you didn’t read poetry, you had to recite it by heart. Half way through, I forgot my own verses, and run off the stage in tears, in front of an audience of hundreds. This might have not been a very auspicious start to a career in public performance, but Miss Sarah’s encouragement imbued in me what would become a lifetime love for poetry, and inspired me to keep on writing. I never went on to sell three million copies of any of my poems (let’s face it – how many people do?) but we all know that sales and figures are not – or should not be – a measure of success.
Think of how rewarding it would be if you were the person who changed someone’s life, by noticing and encouraging a gift that might not be so evident to others, not even to themselves. You don’t need to be an expert in any field to be able to recognise when someone has a particular talent, big or small. If there is a person – young or mature – who you think is good at something, make sure you point it out.
Even if it is a talent for writing poetry – it will rarely bring them fame or fortune, but it might bring them happiness. As Franklin D. Roosevelt said, ‘Happiness lies in the joy of achievement and the thrill of creative effort.’
The author, aged eight, with her brother Daniel the year she was crowned Princesa de la Poesía (Princess of poetry) at the School’s Spring pageant
Retelling of Possum Magic story based on Mem Fox’s account at http://www.memfox.com/possum-magic.html
Bel Vidal - Débutante novelist (author of Exuberance), blogger,