Open doors

Isn’t it amazing how much one person can affect the life of another, and not even know it?

Back when I was in high school, I was one of those kids who never really felt like they belonged. The town I lived in felt too constraining, too small to hold all of my dreams and ambitions. None of my friends shared the same musical tastes or career goals. None of them shared my need to escape the familiar and see what the wider world had to offer. They happily aspired to living normal lives with normal jobs; perhaps they’d even in stay in Deptford to raise their families just as their parents had done.

I wanted out.

When I was about 16, I complained to my mother in an overdramatized outpouring of teenage melancholy about how trapped I felt in this town. That, having been born and raised here, I was doomed. Probably stuck here forever. Why on earth would the big exciting wide world ever accept me in, some podunk chick from such a small, unexciting place?

Without a word my mother got up and left the room. (I figured she had had enough of my whiny rant.) A few minutes later she came back in, toting a slightly yellowing copy of the 1964 Dorian — her high school yearbook.

My mom was quite familiar with this town I was complaining about, because she grew up in it, too. In fact, it was even smaller when she was my age, barely a blip on the South Jersey map. In high school I wandered the same halls she did a generation before, and even had some of the same teachers. Her classmates were the parents of many of mine, and she had even dated the father of one of the boys I was dying to kiss. (This was, no doubt, a strong contributing factor to my small-town angst.)

Anyway, back to that yearbook.

She leafed through the pages of senior photos until she came to one in particular — Patricia Lee Smith. A small-town girl like me who had ambitions and dreams. A small-town girl who didn’t feel like she fit there. A small-town girl who, not too long after this picture was taken, moved to New York and started her journey to becoming Patti Smith, the revered Godmother of Punk.



“She made it out. You can, too, if you want to.”

And right then, without her permission or her knowledge, Patti Smith became my liberator . My mother was right — I wasn’t stuck here (or anywhere for that matter) unless I wanted to be.  The doors to that big world were indeed open — Patti had already swung ’em wide. All I had to do was choose.

At this point of the story I’d like to tell you that, spurred on by Patti’s lead, I also went headlong into the world to become an amazing artist and do legendary things.

But I didn’t.

I went to college and travelled around a bit.  I met kindred spirits, and people even stranger than me.  I figured out who I was. And then, after years of trying to escape South Jersey, it suddenly occurred to me — I really liked it there.  So I moved back. I currently live one town over from the one I spent my “trapped” teenage years in. (And no, the irony of this does not escape me.)

I bet when Patricia Lee Smith had her photo taken that day in 1964, she had no idea it would ever be more than just another face in the Dorian.  But for me her presence in that yearbook signaled the promise of “possible;” photographic proof that you can go on to do great things no matter where you start out from. She became my guide through the fear of doing things differently and being myself.  In many ways she still is.

Thanks, Patti.  I owe you one.


Colleen Clifford

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