Ever since I was old enough to write, I did. I wrote short stories and haikus, I always entered our regions reflections contest and usually asked for extra writing assignments from the teachers. My interest in writing may have very well been due to the fact that I was a loner throughout most of my grade school years. Being tortured by the other students in my class was not an uncommon thing for me and writing, I suppose, made me feel safe. I could be whomever I wished to be on paper, no one could hurt me or tell me I was stupid or overweight. I was no longer out of place, simply because this seemed to be where I belonged.
It wasn’t until I was 9 years old that things started to look up for me. I was in the fifth grade and as I entered the awkward years of puberty I once again felt lost and out of place. Armed with a few more friends than the former years had allowed, I felt like maybe something in my life was about to change and I could not have been more right. As my passion for writing grew, so did the interest of my friends. They all wanted to know what I was doing while slaving over my desk at reading time or why I was finishing my work early just to do a little more. I had an idea back then, one that would turn out to be the building blocks of who I am today.
At this time in my life, my father was my one and only best friend. I cannot count how many times I would come home to him crying after a day at school had turned into hell on earth for me. All through grade school I was overweight. I had long brown hair until my mother convinced me to cut it short which only extenuated the fact that my face resembled a Macy’s day parade balloon. I suffered from eczema and walked around looking like a living Veggie-Tale character. I was awkward, to say the least, and I know that everyone noticed. From the time I stepped on the bus to the moment I stepped off of it at the end of the school day, it was nothing but prayers and fake smiles to get me through. Most of the teachers didn’t notice, let alone try to do anything about it; I was fair game. No matter how bad those days were at school, I could always count on my father to pick me up out of my stupor. My father was six foot two, bald except for the sides of his head and he sported a dark brown mustache and a cute little pot belly. He was a man of God and of discipline, having served in the Navy in his younger years and having grown up with an alcoholic father, he had learned how to keep life light. More than anything he was a comedian and on those really hard days when I came home feeling lower than low, he knew just how to make me smile.
It was, in the end, my father who I have to thank for my spurt of popularity in my small town of Nixa, Missouri. I had spent all summer reading the area newspaper, researching places I visited and composing poems. I was 10 now and still a bit far off from getting my driver’s license or a job, so daddy bridged the gaps by acting as chauffeur and picking up the tab at Kinkos. Equipped with my ambition and of course, my father, we set out to do something that would grow up to be bigger than we had ever expected. We set out to make a newspaper.
By September of 2003, the first issue of the “Inman Ink” was written, typed and published to the lot of the Nicholas A. Inman Elementary school. I watched with pride as I let my eyes dance upon the hundreds of students reading my newspaper. Everywhere I looked, students walking in the hallways, sitting at their desks in their classrooms, even at recess, there it was, my paper. Soon, it caught on like wildfire. Many of my classmates were writing “test” articles for me as some kind of audition to be a part of the Inman Ink. Before spring, I had two editors, five reporters, a sports journalist and an illustrator for the new comic addition to the paper. I assigned subjects and due dates and every other Saturday it was off to Kinkos to piece together and print the new issue of the Inman Ink.
That winter I had successfully scored an interview with John Brown, a newscaster for the local news station KSPR 33. After I had told him a little bit about our project, he invited my family and me to sit in on the set during an actual newscast. I also had the pleasure of meeting and talking with Aaron Bergey from the TV show The Bachelor while he was building his restaurant, Trollies located in downtown Springfield, Mo. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a purpose. I felt like I fit in and that was something that I never would have dreamed would happen to me. For all of the years my classmates spent tearing me down, they couldn’t stop trying to get on my good side when I started to move up in the fifth-grade social hierarchy. In February of 2003, I received a phone call. I didn’t know it at the time but what this man was about to ask me would be one of the very big turning points in my life and certainly one that I will never forget. Joe Hadsell, a local reporter was the friendly voice on the other end of the phone that cold February night. He had asked me to do an interview with him regarding The Inman Ink. Not only that, but I was given an exclusive invitation to be there when it was printed, right there in the massive room with the printing press and I was promised the very first copy.
There I was, on the front page of The Nixa News Enterprise. I stood there, taking it all in pouring my eyes over the literally, hot off the press copy. I stood there reading the caption posted underneath my front page picture, “Inman student writes newspaper so that classmates know what’s going on.” That week at school I watched everyone read, not my paper but the actual city newspaper with my face plastered on the front of it. Not only did I have a whole half page article, but Joe Hadsell had written me another article. He entitled it, “A letter to Ashley: Never stop asking questions”. In his editorial, he gave me some very good advice that follows me even today. He told me to never stop asking questions. Never to stop being curious and never to stop writing. I still remember that day like it was yesterday and I can’t help but smile. That year was one of the best of my entire life and I cherish so dearly all of the days I spent slaving over that newspaper project with my father. He was my inspiration, the fuel that kept me going and above all, my best, and for a very long time, only friend.
Sixth grade came to pass and I knew that I could never publish the Inman Ink again. I was moving on, going to Jr. High. I would no longer be a student at Nicholas A. Inman Elementary, but I had another project in mind before I left for the year. I figured I owed it to my classmates who had helped me with the newspaper and to the classmates below me, to keep the paper alive. In May of that year, I found a sponsor for Inman Elementary’s new after-school organization, The Writing Club.
The time I spent with my father truly changed my life. I’m not sure if it was the change in social status, the public recognition or the fact that I finally felt like I had made a difference that was the most impressionable. I do, however, know this: My father was the most extraordinary person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. Battling multiple mini-strokes, heart surgery and the repercussions of unimaginable amounts of dollars in medical bills during that time in my life, my father never lost hope. During that time in my life, my family had lost everything. Our home, our cars, but we never lost each other. I remember catching my father digging in the couch for extra change and quarters or selling his favorite watch, scrounging for anything he could find so we could print my newspaper. He never gave up, not on himself and most importantly, he never gave up on me. He was my biggest fan, mentor and best friend. No matter the challenges we faced, my father always led us with a smile and a warm, considerate heart. If he was scared, I never knew it. On June 6, 2004, my father passed away unexpectedly in our home in Nixa, MO. I was eleven years old. The Inman Ink was one of the last things I ever got to do with my father. Over the course of the one year we worked on that project together, he brought more joy and laughter to my life then I had ever known. In a very real sense, he made my dreams come true.
Today, I still write. Although most of my correspondence with my father is in the form of letters in a journal, he is still a very real part of my life. The lessons I learned from my father and Joe Hadsell alike, continue to change my life for the better, every day. Without having known what it felt like to pursue and achieve your dream, (if only that of a ten-year-old girl) I’m not sure I would have had the drive and courage to keep going. I will never stop asking questions, I will never stop learning and I will never forget the man who made me the person I am today.