I’ve been thinking about this one. It’s not an easy answer.
Some of my stories are made up…pulled completely out of nowhere, with absolutely no tether to reality.
And some of them are so close to real life that they may as well have pulled up a chair at our dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner, oh say any year between 1978 and 1989. I’m sure things were equally dysfunctional after 1989; it’s just that I figured out how to block them out with college shenanigans and Styrofoam cups full of expertly bartended mixes of MadDog 20/20 and Mountain Dew. So any traumatic late-high-school/college years have now faded into a fuzzy oblivion of ‘yeah,that happened.’
I Was Normal
Just like all of you, back in the day, when I’d hear a teacher assign a term paper or a writing assignment, I would cringe. I’d shrink down in my chair, avoid making eye contact, and hope to receive the best possible topic for my 3-minute stand-up presentation. (Unless I could convince my parents to let me move and live with my great-aunt and her herd of feral cats in North Carolina, which always ended up being a big, fat “NO,” because they continuously reminded me how hard it would be to move back into polite society after committing to the cat-lady life.)
But Then a Thing Happened
A teacher told me I couldn’t do it. (Ok, she didn’t say it exactly like that, but she did say I was being lazy. Ouch.)
“The hell you say?!” That’s exactly what I said. Ok, I’m lying, but I thought it. I think I cried instead.
To be fair, I went into my senior English class with an already-on-vacation attitude. The plan was this: read the beginning, middle, and end; write what I had to; and get through the class because it had to be easier than a REAL college class, right? I could not have been more wrong.
It didn’t take long until I was called out. Big time. What was WITH that teacher? Had no one told her we were just a bunch of high school kids trying to grab four easy college credit hours? Because if so, she had a really short memory. There was nothing easy about her class.
Let me set the scene. Big bumbly teenage girl, still goofy, trying to be cool and writerly, hair still frizzy, glasses still sliding down my greasy Noxema-coated nose. There I was, hanging behind after class, talking to my friends. The teacher guarded the door, much like the three-headed dog guards the gates of hell, one by one, students filed by her desk to exit the classroom. Finally, Bumbly (that’s me) and her friends arrived at the door. My friends easily slid into the hallway, but when I made a move to exit, Mrs. Barkus put a foot out and stood between me and the road to freedom. MAJOR ROADBLOCK!
“Agghhh!” I don’t know if I actually made gurling noises, but I felt like I was drowning. I watched my friends disappear into the throng of students moving onto their next classes, and soon I was alone. I was facing one of the most feared teachers in the school.
Tiny, a foot shorter than me, Mrs. Barkus deftly stepped between the penultimate student—my lifeline—and me, effectively cutting us off.
“I have Spanis….”
“I’ll write you a pass,” she intercepted my excuse, turning toward her desk to pick up a stack of papers that, at first glance, were bleeding. After a quick assessment, however, they were merely decimated by a red pen.
Here are three things you should know:
- I wanted so badly to be a badass; I was not.
- When Mrs. Barkus called me on my shit, I almost pissed my pants.
- I have remembered that moment EVERY step of my professional career.
Bonus thing you should know:
Every kid needs a hero who will call them on their shit. But with kindness. Note: Can we turn that into one of those stretchy, inspirational bracelets?
I like it! It’s obscure. We’ll give them away, and then no one will remember what the acronym stands for. But we will know. We will know that it’s important to Call Them On Their Shit With Kindness.
Mrs. Barkus introduced us to the idea of minimalistic writing. This was the deal. If we (occasionally) happened to have a day when nothing came to us, we could express that—and nothing else—in our journals. (Welp. Guess who had ‘nothing’ come to her…for like, a LOT of days? Yeah, this dumbass.)
For about two weeks, I reported diligently in my daily journal about my lack of inspiration. Until the day I was stopped in my tracks with this message:
“You know you’re going to fail my class, right?”
WHAT? Huh? Who? Where…I didn’t…where was my mommy…could I have ice cream…what was happening?
I mean, I thought I was making a point by taking her up on her offer to NOT write in our journals if we had nothing on our minds. Apparently, however, she thought we had something worthwhile squirrelling around in our little brains, which was a novel concept to us…the thought that an adult would think we had something worthwhile to say.
Ok, she wants to hear what’s running through this head? It could take a minute, I plotted deviously. She gave me one more chance to write in my journal. And journal I did.
If she wanted to see what made up the angsty teenager, I would show her. I wrote. And I wrote…for hours. I was going to show her this was a dirty, muddy car race she didn’t want to see—where things were constantly slipping off the tracks and cars were flipping over at the blink of an eye. I journaled my ASS off, because I was going to SHOW HER. If she thought she could scare us with her college writing rules, she had another thing coming.
I thought it would annoy her. I sat down every night and wrote PAGE after PAGE after PAGE in my journal. I wrote about teenage angst and about visiting the Dachau concentration camp the summer before and about being an exchange student and about how it felt to be gone for a year and about ALL. THE. THINGS. A floodgate had opened. After all, I was proving a point.
But she called me on my bet. She gave me a damned A for my effort and encouraged more writing for the following week. Instead of annoying her, I’d piqued her interest! What the hell?! Talk about the most major backfire in the history of backfires!
Now, not only had I captured the interest of a teacher, I had built a daily habit of journaling—a habit that was hard to break because, in a way, my journal had become my advisor, my sounding board. To this day, I write—the good, the bad, the ugly—and I blame in on Mrs. Barkus, the first teacher who taught me to get my words onto paper so I could purge my thoughts and feelings and move onto bigger and better things. (Damn those teachers and their inspiring ways!)
That’s the story of my revenge-by-writing scheme. It backfired horrendously, and now I’m addicted to putting words on paper, getting thoughts onto the screen, and there’s only one person to blame. Thanks, Mrs. Barkus. And thank you to all the teachers, the mentors, the ones who take the time to foster the spirit of creativity in the next generation. If we want to keep reading good books, we need to keep looking toward our future writers. Thanks, Mrs. Barkus!
So why do writers tell stories? I can tell you that one of the reasons can be traced back to those pesky, yet inspiring, teachers who kept telling us we could do better. Well, we certainly showed them.
P.S. Always remember to always CTOTSWK! They’ll thank you for it in the end. (It’s sort of like telling your friend she has toilet paper stuck to the bottom of her shoe. It’s a little tough to do, but she’d rather hear it from you than anyone else!)