In 1987, Debbie Allen was interviewed by the Philadelphia Tribune on life after the end of her hit television show Fame.
In the story, Debbie Allen discusses her plans for her then-three year old daughter Vivian.
Her exact quote about Vivian’s future:
“I don’t care if she can add or subtract, as long as she can tendu (basic ballet move).”
I was only 14 years old when I read that article. But it stuck with me. Is that wrong to impart your dreams for your child at such a young age? What if Vivian hated dance? What if she’s just not built for it? What if she turned out to love math? And became an accomplished mathematician? Debbie would not be satisfied if she was not also en pointe and could execute a flawless tendu?
I could not imagine how it would be healthy for a mother to
want expect her daughter to follow in her footsteps that way. She was three years old!
Well, for Debbie and her daughter, it worked. Vivian Nixon recently made her debut on Broadway in the play Happy Feet. She also played the lead role originated by Julia Roberts in the television adaptation of Steel Magnolias.
Oh. And she can dance.
I was so pleased to see Vivian excelling in the arts, just as her mother
demanded dreamed. But I vowed that I would not impart my dreams onto my child.
And then, I gave birth to my daughter.
My husband and I could not think of anything to name this poor child. They don’t allow you to leave the hospital without a name so on the last day, we were throwing out stuff and vetoing everything.
Lillian, (my favorite English teacher), Paige, (get it?), Octavia, (Octavia Butler), and Zora, (Zora Neale Hurston.)
We settled on Zora. With the middle name King.
I liked it. It was strong. And I can’t lie, I envisioned how it would look on the spine of her first book. It was my job to made sure she had a hot byline!
And then I caught myself. What if she doesn’t want to be a writer? Why are you choosing this two day old baby’s name based on a potential future as a writer?
I ripped up the paperwork with the name Zora on it and we started over. Zora’s my favorite writer but I didn’t want my daughter to think I was trying to imprint that on her.
I wanted her to say, my mom named me xyz because it means abc. Not, my mom named me xyz because SHE loves xyz.
Back to the drawing board. My little sister came to the hospital with a suggestion. It’s traditionally a boy’s name and it means builder. Coupled with the middle name King and her dad’s last name, I could still see it on the spine of a book.
Fast-forward three years later and Tog is in nursery school. (Her name here on the blog is Tog. It means The Other Girl. Her big sister T.G. is The Girl.)
One day at age three, she comes home from nursery school with a book and a post-it note tucked inside from her teacher: Tog is now reading. Please have her read to you nightly.
Tog was a fluent reader by the time she was four. And she began writing and illustrating her own stories shortly after.
Now I’m her mother. So of course I think she’s awesome. But I can be critical too. And as an editor and writer, I can honestly say that Tog has something there.
And now I’ve become Debbie Allen.
I don’t care if Tog can add or subtract, as long as she can write a compelling narrative.
I already told Tog, if she’s not a novelist, I’m disowning her. And I ain’t paying for med school or law school or any of that crap. She can forget it. If she’s not getting an undergrad degree in English and then an MFA, I ain’t paying for jack.
Of course I’m joking.
But I am laying down the framework for a future writer. There is an organization called Writopia in NYC that works with children with writing promise beginning at age 8. I submitted a sample of her work and finagled 6 year-old Tog up in there. Now every Sunday morning we traipse into the City and she learns about plot, conflict, character development and the fundamentals of story-telling and illustration.
Last week, her instructor pulled me to the side after class and whispered: Tog is good. I said, thanks! Her face was serious. No, she said. I mean she’s really good. We want to enter her into some contests.
David Letterman’s production company, Worldwide Pants, funds a film festival every summer and several of the young Writopia writers submit their stories. Some stories will be adapted for the stage and actually produced with set-design, actors and the whole nine at an off-Broadway theater.
Tog recently told me she’s entering her piece into the contest–and fully expects to be chosen.
I expect nothing less.
Dear readers: Am I wrong for this? Should I let Tog choose her own path and not try to steer her in any particular direction? What if she sticks with it because she knows I want her to and not because she truly loves it?
P.S. Last week, Tog came across two of my books at a local book fair and almost exploded with excitement. Soon, the tables will be turned. And little old gray-haired Aliya S. King will be clutching Tog’s books with pride.