Aug. 11, 2009
Hear Robin Hemley read from his New York Magazine essay "Big Man on Camp" at
Images: Drum and recess photos by Alex Sheshunoff; lunch room photo by Kate Hrdina; and
Professor relives childhood humiliations for new book 'Do-Over!'
Robin Hemley decided to do over the experiences he botched as a kid.
So at age 48, the director of the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program went back to kindergarten and summer camp, joined a fraternity, attempted to take the ACT, and finally asked the girl of his 16-year-old dreams to prom.
Hemley describes his adventures in his new book, "DO-OVER!," published this summer by Little, Brown & Co.
"I've always believed in Socrates' adage, that the unexamined life is not worth living," Hemley said. "As a memoirist, that's part of what I do -- and by going back into the past and stirring things up, I was able to get beyond some of the embarrassments and failures of my childhood."
For the most part, the do-overs weren't major traumas -- more like little things that nagged at him later in life. Like how he stood on the sidelines at prom because he was too chicken to ask the girl of his dreams to dance. Or the way he squandered a study-abroad experience by letting homesickness get the best of him.
"They're the small regrets that stick with us or cause a twinge in the middle of the night when we remember and think, 'Ooh -- I wish I'd done or said that differently,'" he said.
Hemley has long been fascinated with time travel, and movies like "Freaky Friday" or "Billy Madison," in which adults find themselves back in childhood settings. The idea for the project began with a conversation in which Hemley mused about what it would be like to take a second shot at childhood.
The project launched with a single do-over -- returning to summer camp. Young Hemley was "a terrible physical specimen" the first time around, failing his swim test and a last-picked-for-the-team kind of kid in other sports. After a background check, his boyhood camp in upstate New York let him return as a camper.
For the better part of a week, he bunked with 10-year-olds, got bossed around by an 18-year-old counselor named "Snoopy," stood in the milk-and-cookie line -- and ultimately realized he still couldn't beat a bunch of 10-year-olds in sports. Still, he had a good story, which was published in New York Magazine. And he had a checklist of nine more childhood experiences he wanted to do over.
Most if not all of the do-overs are funny, but the book has its serious moments.
"Each episode had its own emotional sucker punch moment, where I realized, 'Oh, this is why it stayed with me,'" Hemley said. "At first it would seem like a trivial thing, maybe some slight in kindergarten. But if I was remembering it, there had to be a reason."
Consider the line he flubbed in a play at age 7. Little Robin was the "Heavenly Messenger," whose role involved delivering a couple lines and handing a gift to another actor. On stage, he completely froze -- and then threw the box at a cowering cast member, shouting, 'Here's your stupid box,' before dashing behind the curtain. As a grown-up, Hemley found a school in Georgia and served as the understudy to a 9-year-old. He redeemed himself in the role of Heavenly Messenger -- and realized why the memory had stuck: "It was the only play my dad saw me in. He died of a heart attack about a month later."
The book is also about parenthood. Hemley's daughters were 15, 12, and 3 when he worked on the do-overs, and they became characters in the book. His oldest, Olivia, was mortified during a trip to Kohl's department store when her dad considered buying SpongeBob SquarePants pajamas for his return to camp. Meanwhile, his middle daughter, Isabel, provided tips on fitting in: "When you get there, do a belly flop into the lake, Dad."
He reflected on how childhood has changed -- for better and for worse. Today's kids might be a bit overpraised, Hemley said, but it's an improvement from the days of "out of sight, out of mind." On the down side, kids seem a lot more stressed out.
"There was always the question of what are you going to be when you grow up, but I didn't worry about it too much -- not as much as I think kids do now," Hemley said.
To his surprise, virtually everyone Hemley encountered along the way was supportive of the project, aside from a snarky eighth grader, who said, "Did you flunk eighth grade 100 times or what?" He expected the kindergarteners to treat him like an adult observer in their classroom, but they accepted him as a peer and were concerned that he had a better experience the second time around. The 5-year-olds were shocked when they asked who was picking him up from school and he responded, "My wife."
"They looked at me like, 'How could you have a wife? You're a kindergartener.'" And one of them said, 'Oh, I thought you were going to say your dad,'" Hemley said. "Throughout the project, people saw it as something fun that they wanted to participate in -- not as something crazy or foolish. They said things like, 'You know, I'd like to do a few things over myself.'"
Hemley would consider one do-over a failure, however. He planned to drive to Chicago to take the ACT, which he never took in high school. But he never made it to the test because before he got out of Iowa City, he ran a yellow light and crashed his car -- right in front of the ACT headquarters on Friday the 13th.
"I thought, 'who is going to believe this?' but it really happened," he said. "I guess whether or not I succeeded at every do-over, they all made for entertaining stories."
Hemley received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his work on "DO-OVER!" He has published seven books, and his stories and essays have appeared in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Chicago Tribune, and many literary magazines and anthologies. He teaches writing courses through the Department of English in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. To learn more about Hemley and "DO-OVER!" visit http://www.robinhemley.com.
STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500
MEDIA CONTACT: Nicole Riehl, University News Services, 319-384-0070, email@example.com