Some decisions are best made with the heart

Published on: May 30, 2013

Penny Fletcher at 17.

Me at 17.

A look back after my 50th class reunion


Seventeen and starry-eyed, after my high school graduation ceremony at the Convention Center on the boardwalk June 13, 1963 in Asbury Park, New Jersey, I planned to share an apartment with my friend Pam in New York City.

We’d worked together after school and on weekends for almost two years at New Jersey Bell Telephone Company to pay for the privilege of driving our cars just about whereever we wanted including the area Bruce Springsteen — another graduate of Asbury Park High School — always referred to at his performances as “The Circuit.”

It was about a half mile square that included a stretch of blacktop parallel to the boardwalk where all the rides, clubs and teens converged on Friday and Saturday nights.

It was a great place to grow up.

At 14, I had my first job as a camp counselor for five-and-six year olds. I loved it because the job gave me the privilege of using the facilities of the most exclusive club on the beach.

In the early ’60s, child work laws went like this: if you could hold a hammer somebody handed you one and expected you to swing it. And not at a person — on a construction job. I could swim no matter how big the waves were and had managed youngsters in a Sunday school class and those two qualifications allowed me to be a camp counselor in charge of about 20 kids.

Yes, things were different then. But like the Class of 2013, we in the Class of ’63 had plans. Some plans changed. Others stayed the same. But life happens and we have to roll with it no matter what.

Nobody could have told me the night I took my graduation walk that in three years the only man I’d ever known as my dad would be dead; I’d have buried my first child; or that I’d get to live in (and travel through) Europe as a military dependent and visit more than three-quarters of the United States as well.

Good things and bad. None planned, yet all a part of life.

Graduation night was all about “the plans” we’d made and how we were about to begin them.

The best advice I could give today’s graduates is to never give up on a dream and settle for something less. So what if you have to take it in stages, or do something else for awhile, or even if you get knocked down and think you can’t get back up. As time goes on, even if the plan goes completely awry, the twists and turns in life can be a good learning experience and take you down roads you’d have never gotten to travel if you’d stayed right on track.

I recently interviewed former superintendent of schools Earl J. Lennard. He’d planned to be a lawyer. Instead he ended up influencing thousands of students — both directly and indirectly — through the school district employees he’s supervised.

The only thing we can count on is change. We have to roll with it or we might as well roll over and play dead.

Pam and I never made it to New York. When I went back to New Jersey for my 25th reunion, I visited with her for awhile and met her husband and family. Her life, like mine, was nothing like we’d envisioned the night we threw our blue satin-covered caps in the air.

Before my 25th reunion I’d found a birth family I’d never known; had four children; inherited stepchildren; and worked at everything from managing convenience stores (where I was robbed at gunpoint twice) to driving a floral delivery truck (yep, CDL license and all). I’d gotten an “A+” on the Federated Tax Preparer exam in a correspondence course – which led me to do tax work part-time in season (yeah, I know I tell people I can’t do math) – and had worked at every job in the office of a large hotel including switchboard, front desk, reservationist, night auditor and office manager.

The only thing that stayed stable was that I continued to write.

From the time I first got in trouble over what I’d written in a diary — I think I was 10 and nothing in our house was private — I knew I wanted to write for a living.

The funny thing is that in my senior year drama class I changed my mind temporarily and wrote “acting” as my goal in the class yearbook. The drama teacher must have been pretty good for me to have done that — yet I don’t even remember her name. I do, however, remember my senior high school English teacher, Mrs. Van Campen, down to the minutest detail.

Once I wrote a poem that won an award but originally was thrown out of the competition because I had used the word “bastard” to refer to a “throw-away doll,” which of course, was a metaphor for a person. What I remember most clearly is that Mrs. Van Campen fought for my right to remain in that competition and I did.

In fact, I won it.

Teachers mattered. Those high school years mattered. They taught me never to give up.

Penny Fletcher at 67.

Me at 67.

I hadn’t made it to school in New York but while overseas with my first husband, I took correspondence courses from Writer’s Digest and classes on base whenever I could. It wasn’t the easiest way to get an education. I realized my first plan to attend Columbia University and share an apartment with Pam, who planned to be (and easily could have been) a Barbizon model, would have been a quicker way to accomplish my goals.

But once you deviate from “the plan,” you have to change tactics.

It took a lot of postage (and return postage for rejections, before the days of email) but I finally started getting fiction stories accepted in True Love, True Romance, True Story and True Confessions — none of which are “true” of course.

But with a divorce and children to feed, house and clothes, the writing I’d always wanted to do was only a sideline for many years.

In the end, however, persistence always pays off. (Had I learned that from Mrs.Van Campen’s fight for my right to use the word “bastard” in a poem?)

By the time I’d moved to Florida from Tennessee after my divorce in 1979 I was selling news articles to Gulf Coast Fisherman, National Fisherman, Today’s Christian Woman and Charisma magazine. I was also freelancing features and commentary to newspapers.

Following that have been nearly 33 years of writing for seven newspapers in Hillsborough County, Florida, three of which I continue to freelance for now.

Approaching my 50th reunion, I wondered how many of my high school friends had actually gotten to do what they’d planned.

May 4, I attended that reunion. I’ve stayed in touch with a few close friends ever since childhood, and thanks to social media, have found many more during the last 10 years.

But people I hadn’t seen or talked to in 50 years were recognizable, and most had memories of our times together that were as clear as mine.

Class of 2013, make no mistake. Your graduation may be the end of high school and the beginning of a new chapter of life, but it is only one turning point of many, many to come.

Life changes you. Only you can decide if those changes (however tough) can be used for the better or the worse.

One of the quietest people I knew in high school was chairman of the reunion committee. She did a monumental job of locating and contacting people all over the globe and appointed chair persons to handle all the details from constructing a website to deciding (and making) the décor.

I found my classmates remembered little things, like my dog Champ’s name, and how we’d ridden the waves on rubber mats long before surfing became popular. Age may have changed us, but in almost every case, we were still recognizable to each other. Immediately upon my return from my reunion I was given the opportunity to interview local graduating high school seniors and ask their plans for the future.

How did they see themselves in 10, 25, and 50 years?

I thought it strange they all said they would be retired in 50 years. I know some of my high school friends are retired, but those of us who are blessed to be doing something we love don’t want to retire.

When I’m not writing news, I’m working off my website editing author’s books or writing my own. Putting words together isn’t drudgery to me, it’s a way of life.

It’s a way to call attention to good things and bad; to help the community; to leave a mark.

So Class of 2013, decide what you want not by how much money you can make or how much prestige or “status” a certain career can get you.

Decide with your heart. Everyone is born with a dream. Keep it alive always. Never let it die and you will never look back with regret.