Though her family sometimes received food stamps and occasionally had their utilities cut off, Marcie Alvis Walker’s parents led her to believe that they were an average middle-class Black family. They encouraged her to pursue her dreams and told her that if she worked hard enough, she’d achieve them. The small catch was that Walker’s dream was an elusive one for any cash-strapped and undereducated Black woman: being a New York Times–bestselling author. Now, as a published non-bestselling author, she wishes she’d had a backup plan.

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Having finally made it out the Podunk town of my youth, onto a college campus, and into a lecture hall, I was ready to make my mark as a scholar of letters at Can’t-Read-Can’t-Write Kent State. I hadn’t known about the nifty little nickname for the Department of Humanities when I first applied and was accepted into those hallowed halls lined with Shakespeare, patchouli, and tweed. I didn’t know certain colleges were known for certain programs, hadn’t a clue that I should’ve been in Iowa or New York or Michigan. Nobody said. And so I applied to what seemed reasonable: Four-Shot-Dead Kent State University. And yes, I was caught unaware of that darling little moniker as well.

I could google what the weather was like in January of 1989 in Kent, Ohio, but I’ll tell you: it wasn’t memorable, like your first day of college on a campus should be. Golden. Crisp. Plaid. I know you know what I’m talking about. It wasn’t at all like the St. Elmo’s Fire movie poster. It wasn’t at all what John Hughes promised the Midwest could be once you left the hood. I don’t recall seeing a clash of cable-knit sweaters against the backdrop of tawny and burgundy leaves. There were no strokes of saffron and honey folded into crowns of oaks and maples. I don’t remember frisbees being tossed or hacky sacks being kicked around by anyone—and definitely not by me and my kind. There were no coffee carts. We hadn’t even yet experienced a Starbucks. If you’d told me then I’d buy coffee to-go from anywhere other than a McDonald’s or a 7-Eleven, I would’ve said, “What?!” and “Why??”

Putting all that aside, I arrived a whole semester late. In August, I was shocked when all my friends flew off like birds migrating south. I was the one lone, dumb duck still swimming in the pond. Up until that moment, I truly didn’t believe people really and truly went to college. I’d never met one. Everyone I knew either worked a factory job or for their family grocery store or construction company or nail salon. Sure, our Podunk town had teachers and doctors and lawyers, but I always assumed those folks had come from elsewhere. Once I realized my friends were serious when they said they were leaving, I started making plans and casting goals higher than being able to order the seafood chimichanga at Chi-Chi’s without having to ask anybody for permission. Once you’ve done that, what else is there? I’d proved I was grown by picking up my own tab, but surely a good life meant more than that. So, following the migratory wave of my fair-feathered friends, I applied to the first college that sent me their brochure. Then I applied for a grant and then a small scholarship, and off I went.

My first entry into the world of books and letters was English Literature 101 with Professor McCoy (or was it McCallister or McCabe? I can’t remember), who looked exactly as an English literature professor would: bespectacled, looking almost elegant except for his high-watered sensible slacks and dandruff-dotted navy blazer. He was a man who wanted to read books more than anything in the world, and so what could be better than a tenured gig? He wasted no time. Before we could settle our backpacks at our feet, his hushed tenor floated over each of us as he recited:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he’s a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he’s to setting.

That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.

Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry;
For having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.

And the sunlight streaming through the window brightened our dull little classroom. And I swear there were cardinals signing as if they’d rehearsed for the moment. If John Hughes had yelled “Cut!” I wouldn’t have been surprised.

There are these beautiful pictures of Toni Morrison gathering rosebuds at Studio 54. She’s braless. Her matronly breasts are swaying as she dances. She’s smiling as wide as her Afro. She’s outright flirting with the lens of the camera. It’s 1974. She’s forty-three years old and an editor at Random House. She’s a published author of two novels, The Bluest Eye and Sula. No one in my hometown knows her name. We haven’t ever heard the name Toni Morrison, because in 1974 she isn’t Alex Haley or Maya Angelou. She’s not a Nobel Prize winner. She’s just another Black woman from a Podunk town in Ohio who made it out. What did we care about this mother of a thirteen-year-old and a nine-year-old? She was no different than any other single, divorced mother who hired a babysitter so she could have a night out. Who would know this mother’s name?—well, except for the people of books and letters. Maybe the good people of the National Book Award, and Black studies professors, and maybe even English literature professors who can recite seventeenth-century poets. But that night in New York City in 1974, the kind of womenfolk whom she wrote about did not know the name “Toni Morrison.” Which is a shame, because they woulda liked her.

Toni Morrison’s bosoms sway, seizing the day. She laughs and discos the night away, and I’ve never wanted to know a soul more. Is she young or is she old? It’s hard to say, though the breasts, for sure, give her a certain maturity. No one can accuse her of being coy. But also, no one can accuse her of being past her prime. If the photos hadn’t been printed in the New York Times, we would’ve missed it. This is Morrison before the Nobel, before Oprah—before Charlie Rose! The pictures were taken before her prime, but in them she is so very much at her prime. I wanna know what she was feeling when these pictures were taken. I wanna know if she knew then that the best was yet to come? But Charlie Rose never asked her. Oprah never asked her. That night, Morrison gathered her rosebuds and we missed it.

“Old time is still a-flying”—actually it’s flown and crash-landed. If only I’d listened to the lovely professor channeling Robert Herrick’s words—mind you, not the marrying part, but those last two lines: “For having lost but once your prime / You may forever tarry.” I wish I’d known how beautiful, ripe, and pure I was when I was eighteen years old, sitting front row and center in my first college course. I was a dew-headed virgin to the art of letters. My hope was taut. My heart supple. I wish someone would’ve taken a picture, though I know I was no more dazzling than Mother Morrison dancing at Studio 54. My pert breasts wouldn’t have swayed. My frail arms wouldn’t have been so carefree like Morrison’s, her back arms flapping in the air without a care in the world.

Maybe it takes time “to make much of time.” At just nineteen years old, I wouldn’t have dared to stare into a camera lens like it was my lover as Morrison did when she was forty-three. My “carpe diem” hadn’t gathered the dank muskiness of experience that infused Morrison. Judging from these pictures “But being spent, the worse, and worst / Times still succeed the former” didn’t apply to her, a full garden rose—a massive, heady, many-petaled thing of beauty. Oh god, may we all be so lucky to live past the patina of youth, a string of verse composed of unstressed syllables.

All of that to say, I don’t know why we’re expected to know anything when we’re young. I mean, I don’t think any John Hughes character—not even Ferris Bueller with his parade—knew what Toni Morrison knew on that dance floor back in 1974.