BY LS HAWKER (LISA STORMES)
I grew up in Walnut Hills and Willow Creek and attended three different elementary schools: Greenwood Elementary for kindergarten, Belleview Elementary for first grade, then Walnut Hills Elementary for second through sixth. Walnut Hills Elementary opened in 1969, and it was an experimental, open-space school without desks or walls. I thought it was the coolest place ever, and not least because the structure was pretty loosey-goosey. It was the late ’60s, remember, so the philosophy was “all kids are naturally curious, so leave them alone and they’ll want to learn.”
It didn’t quite work that way. This philosophy meant I didn’t have to do math or science if I didn’t feel like it—and I never felt like it. So I didn’t. (Example science projects: raising guinea pigs and turtles, and making a life-sized papier-mâché mummy.) By third grade, all I did most of the time was read and write stories. The teachers encouraged creativity and told me I was good at writing, which stoked the fires. Two of the stories I wrote at Walnut Hills I still have—one of which is an illustrated mystery, Detective Alistair Apple: Apple with a Mustache.
I enjoyed my time at Walnut Hills, but it did not prepare me for junior high at Cherry Creek West. They had desks and walls there. I had to go to math and science! It was a difficult transition, but I continued to write stories and devour novels. I entered Cherry Creek High School in 1976, and I got my first job at Joyce’s Submarine Sandwiches at 8915 E. Union Ave., where Salon Creation is now, in the same complex as The Villager’s offices.
Even though CCHS was just four miles from my house, it was another world. The four-building campus was intimidating, and it was easy to feel lost and small (I was both).
But the highlight of freshman year was my English teacher, Joan Hodgkinson. Talk about lasting impact. We spent the year writing not just compositions, but monologues, dialogues, commercials and short stories. That year, the Eagles released their Hotel California album, and I became obsessed to the point of writing a short story based on the title song. I still remember the look on Hodg’s face as she read it. Eyebrows high on her forehead, eyes tracking fast across the pages, slapping each down as she finished it.
I’ll never forget that feeling. Hodg told me I was born to be a fiction writer, and I internalized her sincerity and enthusiasm as only a 14-year-old can. I believed her. She encouraged me to try to sell that story. “Look in the Writers Market,” she said. “You’ll find all the information you need in there.”
I didn’t know what Writers Market was, but I followed her pointing finger to the school library and pulled the gigantic reference book from the shelf and promptly found the highest-paying market for short stories ($3,000 for a short story, or $13,000 in today’s dollars). I packaged up my short story and sent it off.
Six weeks later I got my very first rejection letter (there would be hundreds more in the coming years). I showed it to Hodg, and her eyebrows went up again when she saw the logo at the top of the stationery of the rejection. “You sent it to Playboy Magazine?”
I shrugged. “You said to aim high. So I aimed high.”
I wasn’t lucky enough to have any other classes with her, but she remained an inspiration to me. I spent fall semester of senior year as an intern in the sports department at Channel 9 with Gary Cruz and Mike Nolan. I was a member of the class of 1980, but I graduated in December 1979. I earned my BS in Journalism from the University of Kansas and worked in radio. Then I moved back to Denver in 1987 and got married in 1991.
I continued to write, and I came very close to getting a book contract in 1993 while I was pregnant with my oldest daughter. My novel about a Cherry Creek High School baseball jock who falls in love with an ugly girl was a finalist in the Delacorte Press First Young Adult Novel Contest but remains unpublished.
Fast-forward many years and much rejection later. I finally broke into the ultra-competitive world of Big 5 publishing and got a three-book contract with HarperCollins. So it was time to make good on a vow I’d made decades before. I tried to track Hodg down to thank her for setting the slow but inevitable wheels in motion, for giving me the confidence and skills to pursue fiction writing. All I found was an incomplete LinkedIn profile, but I searched online phone books for possible addresses. I took a stab and sent an effusive, grateful snail mail letter to one of them.
I never heard back.
I live in Littleton now, and my daughters attended Jefferson County schools. The oldest is in her third year of law school and the youngest just graduated high school.
My debut novel, The Drowning Game, became a USA Today bestseller, and my novels have been translated into eight languages. My fourth novel, The Throwaways, will release Jan. 22, 2019. We like to say that I’m a 25-year overnight success, but it was worth the wait. I just wish I could talk to Hodg about it. I’d watch her eyebrows go up, and I’d tell her I still believe her. I’d tell her she was right all along.
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