Thursday, May 21, 2009

I Went Back to High School Tonight

As you'll recall from yesterday's post, "Who Inspired You As A Kid?" one of my high school English teachers, Michael Bellito spoke at the Arlington Heights Memorial Library tonight about his first book "Ten Again."

I arrived about 5 minutes before the program began, bought a book, got it signed to me and found a seat in the second row. The room was full of Hersey alums, Mr. Bellito's family including his wife, mother, brother Tommy who is prominently featured in the book, and sister-in-law, and even Dennis McSherry, one of Mr. Bellito's closest friends and fellow English teachers at Hersey. Standing in line waiting for my book to be signed, I met a guy named Eric who graduated with and remembered my brother, Dave. Sadly, I didn't see any of my own classmates.

Listening to Mr. Bellito speak, I was immediately taken back to his speech and creative writing classes at Hersey. He read three excerpts from "Ten Again": a story about a family trip to Riverview, recollections of Saturday afternoons spent at the Arlington Theater (the orignal one at Evergreen and Miner), and an account of his first encounter with tabloid journalism via colored chalk on the sidewalk during 5th grade recess. The stories were engaging, funny and relatable, even if you didn't grow up in Arlington Heights. Clearly, he took the advice he always gave me and the rest of his students: "write what you know." Just like sitting in his classes at Hersey, my hand tired from all the notes I took.

As someone who dreams of being published, I was encouraged as he shared the birthing process of "Ten Again." Although he wrote during his teaching years, he only wrote short stories because he simply didn't have the time to dedicate to a full book. Only as he got closer to retirement, in 2002, did he finally sit down and write the outline for "Ten Again," which he then set aside until May 2006 when he'd been retired for a year. Then he hand wrote the entire book in just 7 months. Five months later, in May 2007, he surprised his mom with an editted and typed copy of the book she didn't even know he was writing. It would be another 12 months before he learned it would be published. He spoke of the many rejections he's received over the years for his short stories, even after having one of them published in North Shore Magazine. He reminded me never to give up on my own dreams.

Asked if he ever shared his writing with his Hersey colleagues, he joked that he had Mr. Venegoni review his work and Mr. McDonnell would send his stories to the Grammar Lady in the Writing Center. All the Hersey grads laughed as we remembered the way Mr. Venegoni and Mr. McDonnell would critique our work and ride us hard.

After the reading, I had an opportunity to speak with Mr. McSherry, my former debate coach and teacher. It was fun that he remembered me. Like Mr. Bellito, he's also retired from Hersey and teaching at the College of Lake County (Mr. Bellito is teaching at Harper). He's also playing golf and returned to Hersey this past year to coach the debate team.

All in all, a great night. I can't wait to curl up in a little while with "Ten Again." I'll write a book review as soon as I finish it.

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