November 8, 2009
I’m sure we all remember those elementary school assignments that required us to write a short story, then read it out loud for the edification of our classmates. The first time I can remember doing that was in 5th grade. Fifth grade was a nightmare for me. As an unnaturally tall child with no social skills, it was as if the terrors of junior high got a two-year head start. In the vernacular of more recent years, fifth grade totally harshed my gig.
My fifth grade teacher couldn’t even pretend to like me. Or perhaps she could have pretended, but decided not to, thinking that I wasn’t worthy of any artifice on her part. She wasn’t a very nice woman. I’m sure she’s making some poor man’s golden years a veritable hell in an assisted living facility in Southern California. In those yellow Fall days in the late 60s, she was my boogie for six hours a day, five days a week. I have to cut her some slack, though, and admit that there wasn’t anything necessarily likable about me at that age. I was a homely girl with stringy hair, a gap between my front teeth, and only two school outfits that I interchanged on a rotating basis. Sometimes one of those outfits would be dirty and I’d have to choose whether to wear soiled clothes or appear daily in the cleaner outfit until one of the adults at home got around to doing laundry.
Anyway, I remember that first short story assignment, mostly because of the chastisement it earned me. I let it go until the last minute, hurriedly scribbling it out the night before it was due. I always let my homework go until the last minute back then. That’s what kids who hate going to school do. When I was called on to read my story out loud the next day, I was more concerned with whether anyone would notice that my knee socks didn’t match (they were both white, but had different patterns of knit) than what kind of grade I’d receive on the assignment.
The story was about a young girl (me in a prettier, braver, and certainly not unnaturally tall package, of course) whose parents (mine in a sober, attentive package) take her to London on holiday. She spies a glass unicorn in a gift shop at the same time another girl her age (prettier, of course, and with much more sober parents). A physical altercation ensues; my heroine ends up pushing the other girl into the glass display case and comes away the winner on all counts.
About halfway through my reading, I noticed titters from my classmates. Some of them were actually starting to pay attention. By the end of the story, every shove my heroine delivered to her spoiled rival earned cheers from the class. When I finished reading, the class erupted into loud applause. Except for the teacher, everyone enjoyed it immensely. She stood up and gestured for silence, then castigated me on the level of violence in my story, saying that it was “completely inappropriate for a ten-year-old girl”. I thought the lecture would never end. On and on she went, holding my story up to the others as an example of what she would not tolerate in her class and pointing me out for the potential failure of a human being that she no doubt believed I was destined to become.
The recess bell saved me. I went out to the tether ball courts as usual, hoping to find someone who didn’t mind playing with a girl who loomed at least a foot taller than they, but that day I was surrounded by my classmates. Even the boys looked up to me as some sort of hero. My story had touched a nerve. I’d written about the anger so many children feel at an age when our feelings were disregarded and we were instructed to keep our mouths shut. There was no Prozac for kids in those days; we had to suck it up, baby, and so we did just that, and a few of us wrote stories about it.
I spoke out that day behind the facade of fiction. I see writers do that same thing all the time. Stephen King especially comes to mind. I have no doubt that alcoholism and cancer have reared their ugly heads in his life; those two diseases are as monstrously pervasive in his fiction as vampires, serial killers and megalomaniacs. Is that what we’re doing, then? Are we all surreptitiously trying to air our sorrows, torn between the hope that no one will notice and the burning desire that finally someone will understand – that someone will hold us in the form of our words to their figurative heart and whisper, “shhhhhhhh, hush now, it’ll be okay”?