by Peter C. Conrad
A significant factor in all I have achieved was naiveté: I simply did not know any better when I left the farm and traveled to Edmonton, where I would be free to graduate high school, living on my own or with my brother. It followed that I would go to university and attain several degrees, which would allow me to choose any carer I wanted. There would be prosperity, as simple hard work would bring me the pleasures of success. I dreamed of easily attaining a bachelor degree and a Master of Arts with a thesis that would automatically be accepted by a publisher leading to wealth and offers to continue publishing. Offers to teach at universities and colleges would present themselves. There would be more publications, non-fiction histories, social commentary, short stories and collections of personal essays, novels, film scripts produced, radio plays, stage plays, and of course collections of poetry.
I knew this would happen as I finished my chores every night and listened to soft lowing of the cattle around me, they nodded their heads, satisfied with the hay I had thrown over the fence, the grain in the troughs, nodding in agreement with my thoughts. There would be a place where I would wake up in the morning and the sun would be bright, warm, inviting, filling the room in an amber hue. There would not be any animals calling for morning milking, feeding, watering, or grooming. There would be a neat set of letters from editors on my desk in a den, not far away outlining what they liked about the manuscripts they were reviewing, encouraging, supportive comments about the work. Other letters were from my agent gently suggesting more great books I may write next. There would be another manuscript nearly complete, paper stacked by the manual typewriter. To one side there would be another envelope that had been ripped open days before: another royalty cheque to deposit. There was no pressing need to take it to the bank, but perhaps a trip downtown may be fun I would think. Another letter requesting me to consider a position at a university lays on the side table unanswered as I would have not need to take the position, as the earning from my books would be so great such a position would be a unwanted burden on my time.
My wife wakes up and smiles. She stretches and enjoys the warm sunlight, just home from a book tour for her latest best selling book …
The cityscape in front of me was loud and disorienting when I got off the Greyhound bus in Edmonton: a slanted city, I thought. Everything was new, the streetlights were bright, the number of cars, strange. Everything was just going to get better from here.
There had been a sudden change as my mother caught me packing up items in my bedroom on the farm days before, sealing them and putting my brother’s address on them so they could be sent out once I was gone. She did not bother to pack much herself before running out the house and disappearing into the night. She met me as I left the bus station. She had an apartment and said she had a place for me. Shortly after I settled into the bedroom of the apartment, she said I could have my fun and finish Grade 9, but that would be it. She had arranged a job for me at the car dealership where she worked as a desk clerk. They knew all about me and would be happy to hire me in the parts department where all I needed to know was my ABCs, and they would teach me that.
My brother and I rented an apartment in the summer before Grade 10; I had money from working in landscaping and money I received from the sale of the cattle I had left behind on the farm. My dreams dictated that I take a full set of honours courses in the sciences, social sciences, English, and Mathematics. I had the additional incentive to do well, if I did well, no one at the school would ask questions about my family or living arrangements. As a muscular farm boy I had no trouble making the school’s football team, which was fun, except I had no idea what football was. With the isolation of farm life, a lack of a television, I had only heard cryptic descriptions of football and had a vague idea what hockey was.
Grade 10 was a continuous effort, filling in gaps created by the years of limbo, classified as learning disabled, making my own rules about how I would learn with the illicit help of many teachers. I thought I could do everything in school, be on the football team, yearbook, newspaper, student council, track team, swimming team, but there was not enough time with the homework that needed to be done. I would arrive at school an hour before classes started, went to the library, went to classes, went to football practice, then travelled to the University of Alberta to find a place in one of the libraries where I would stay until everything was done.
My brother was involved in his own struggles, and paid little attention to what I did in those years. He would ask now and then if I had given up on graduating, as he had. I assured him I was only going to school for the fun of it. He became vigilant about picking up the mail from the front doors of the apartment building, always opening my mail first. At the end of Grade 11, he discovered my high marks and reported them to my mother. There was only one thing that I could do: sciences. Those who received high marks, must study science in their natural order of things.
In Grade 12, I continued with calculus, sciences, English, and social studies, but never forgot that I was going to be a writer. Perhaps, I could be a lab technician and write on the side until my best selling books allowed me to work full time as a writer. The problem was that I had no interest in continuing with sciences at university.
I as a volunteer at the Book Fair at Strathcona High School in my final year of high school, I met authors and listened to them speak. It became clear to me that the dream I had of being a writer was not fantasy. After listening to a presentation by Ted Barris about his knew book Fire Canoe, we talked. I told him about how my family wanted me to pursue sciences, but I wanted to be a writer. He paused for a moment and told me that if I wanted to be happy I should follow my passions. The final decision was made I would be a writer.
As I prepared to go to university, my family was aware I was going to go into arts, so they agreed to provide some assistance if I went to the University of Saskatchewan, rather than the University of Alberta. They hoped I would enter the seminary once I was in Saskatoon, and abandon writing, as being a minister would be a way to save me and keep me in the natural order of things. I agreed, as Saskatoon was far from their influences.
I was delighted to find a strong and supportive community of writers, and a university with a well-known History faculty. There was no doubt that I would live my dreams, as naïve as they appeared to others. All I had done was called foolish, childish, unattainable, but they had been attained. Before I left the farm, years earlier I had the silly idea that I could write an article that the local newspaper, South Peace News would publish: it would be about the organization of the Stony Creek 4-H Club, and it worked with the short piece appearing in 1975. I never forgot the feeling and continued through with the same power of the naïve, leaving the farm and graduating high school on my own, entering university, and completing my Bachelor of Arts degree in History and English.
With the completion of my BA the label of naïveté became firmly associated with me as I insisted that I would find a perfect subject for my Master of Arts thesis, which would be accepted by a book publisher, proving that there were no obstacles to publishing the right thesis. That was so naïve and it rang in my ear constantly through the year and half it took to complete the degree.
Many of my peers at university just shook their heads, patted me on the shoulder and said I must be prepared for disappointment when I told them, I would have some of my short stories produced on CBC radio. They had little to say to me when “Shut Out the Rain” and “Two Streams” were broadcast in the 1980s.
Success was achieve on a warm August day in 1989, when I arrived at my publisher’s office in Saskatoon to pick up a box of my book, Training for Victory: the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. It was an expanded version of my MA these about the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Saskatchewan.
Needing an income during those early years, and with the encouragement of some faculty members of the College of Education at the University of Saskatchewan I completed my Bachelor of Education in 1992, declaring I would soon be in a contract. This was considered naïve, as only those with connections in a school district would get a contract. In less than a year I had my temporary contract.
I continued with a new goal to work as an Instructional Designer, which was also mocked, but quickly led to opportunities with institution like the Saskatchewan Institute of Applied Science and Technology, EMBANET in Toronto, The Education Management Corporation in Pittsburgh, TrainingScape in Seattle, and the Heritage Community Foundation in Edmonton.
All I pursue now is the naïve goals, but are they really naïve? Only those achievements that are beyond one’s reach, is by definition naïve. As I define another set of goals I remember all the looks of pity, disgust, disbelief of those who told me I was naïve, but by definition, every statement that these nay Sayers was naïve. My statements were proved to be attainable goals—attainable if I rejected their naïve views.