Went to church, praying, “Santa Maria,
Send me guidance, send me guidance,”
On my knees.
Went to church, praying, “Santa Maria,
Help me feel it, help me feel it.
And a voice from down at the bottom of my soul
Came up to the top of my head.
And the voice from down at the bottom of my soul,
Here is what it said:
“This man is nothing!
This course is nothing!
If you want something,
Go find another class.
And when you find one
You’ll be an actress.”
And I assure you that’s what
Fin’lly came to pass.
-“A Chorus Line”
We had a Special Teacher for a week in 7th Grade Language Arts. Her name was Miss Christy. She appeared on a Monday, all seventies winged hair and a woven Greek shoulder bag full of dittos, very dramatic in a way that made me feel immediately anxious. “I am SO excited,” she said, “to get started with all of you on your creative writing unit.” I was worried. I had been writing forever already, handwritten novels on lined paper with illustrations of bonneted pioneer girls, typed short stories, and, more recently, thrawn and abject love poems. I thought of myself, already, as a writer. It was my special thing, what I did best, the gift I had been given. The idea that everyone could just do my best thing was past threatening and into the realm of viscerally painful. I didn’t care if other students wrote research papers about coal mining, or book reports, but this promised to be a full-on invasion of my most cherished and manicured turf. I sat rigid in my burnt orange plastic chair, overweight, frizzy and pasty, imagining my one unique qualification diluted by a sea of new writers.
Our first assignment was to write about what we had done the previous weekend. I did not find this particularly creative; it seemed more like a newspaper story than anything “creative.” In the middle of writing, dutifully, about my Saturday morning cello lesson, shopping with my mother for new jeans, and how everyone else watched football on Saturday but I didn’t, the Creative Writing teacher caught my eye and motioned for me to come to her desk. She had told us that she “didn’t like desks” because they put a barrier between teachers and students, but there was really nowhere else for her to sit. When I reached the desk, she smiled warmly, and put down the book she had been holding. “You’re Ann, right?” I nodded. I knew I wasn’t in trouble; I was never in trouble. I would, actually, have liked to be someone who might get into trouble, but it was a thrill denied by my anxiety and desire to please adults. “Well I’m happy to meet you, Ann – Mrs. Miller tells me that you’re very interested in writing.”
“I like to write,” I said cautiously, uncertain whether I was supposed to be complicit in this writing thing, or a sponge eager for her drops of wisdom.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know that I’ll be very interested to see what you write this week. Mrs. Miller says you have a real talent.”
“Oh, Thanks.” I stood there, thinking maybe a smile was called for, something other girls would know how to do easily, one of those things that was oddly difficult for me. She smiled, displaying big, white, even teeth.
“You may go back to your seat, now.” I did.
The next day as we filed into third hour Language Arts, Miss Christy was finishing a drawing of a penny on the chalkboard. It was pretty good, as chalkboard drawings go; Lincoln looked like Lincoln, and she had done a nice job of making it seem 3-D. “Good MORning,” she said when she turned to face us. “Yesterday we got our tiny toes wet with a little writing practice, but today we’re just going to jump in the lake and get soaked.” My stomach hurt. “We’re going to write an Imagination Story today, and I’m going to give you the whole hour to write it. Don’t worry, there’s not going to be a grade, but you’ll hand them in to me at the end of the hour and tomorrow we’ll talk about them in class.” This sounded okay to me; I wrote “imagination stories” all the time. I was, however, concerned about that penny.
She pointed at the penny. “This is the star of your story. You are going to write from the point of view of a penny, and talk about all the places you go and what happens to you. I want you to use lots of descriptive words, really imagine how it feels to be in a pocket, or a cash register.” She went on to remind the class about how first person worked, and to inform us that she had dittoed lists of adjectives and adverbs to which we could refer if we needed help with writing “colorfully.” We all took out paper from our Trapper Keepers, the usual suspects borrowing from those of us who were chronically prepared, and waited at the starting block. “Okay,” she said, “you may get started.”
I wrote my name and the date in the upper right corner of the page, and desperately regarded the chalk penny. This was really messing me up, having someone tell me what to write about. I liked to write about feelings, and interactions between people. I liked to write dialogue. I could imagine all kinds of things, being an orphan girl in London, living on a ship, being a boy or a dog or a spider like Charlotte, but I had no feel for being an inanimate object. Around me, pencils started to move, and I felt a cold wave of real panic. I was The Writer, my pencil wasn’t moving, and I had nothing to write. Ten minutes passed, and finally, despondent, I started to write. “I am a lost penny. I used to live in a dark, warm pocket but then one day I fell out and onto the street. It was very hard…”.
The next day we came in and sat down as Miss Christy stood in front of the teacher’s desk. “I’d like you to stand up and put your desks in a circle” she instructed. “Today we are going to have a writers’ workshop.” We did as we were told, with a lot of scraping, dragging and jockeying for position. She pulled a bundle of papers from her Greek bag; I knew they were the stories we had handed in the day before. “I’ve read all of these, and I’m very excited about what I see. I’d like to read to you from a couple of stories that I think are really excellent.” I relaxed; when Mrs. Miller picked reports to read out loud, mine was always among them. From across the room, my friend Nicki smiled at me and made her hand into a gun pointing in my direction. Everybody knew this was my thing.
“This one is by Ben,” she began. Ben Fujikawa was a quiet boy who played the violin. He was smart in a math kind of way, but I charitably allowed that he could share my moment in the sun. She read his piece aloud with great expression; the penny in his story went through the washing machine and had a very “colorful” time of it. When she was done, she told us about why it was good, from the use of “describing words,” to the way you could almost hear the door clanging shut on the machine. Twenty minutes of the fifty minute hour were over. Next, she read Stacy’s story. Stacy was my arch-rival, the person who had defeated me in the Sixth Grade All-School Spelling Bee. Her story involved a suspenseful situation on a railroad track, and involved (I imagined) many exclamation points. Ten minutes remained.
“We have time for one more story,” said Miss Christy. The world stopped and I tensed in my chair. It had to be mine, had to be mine, had to be mine. “This one is from Debbie.” I felt eyes on me, my magnitude of failure multiplied by its very public nature. I knew Stacy was ecstatic in her own orange seat, and that Nicki was trying to think of something nice to say after class. I barely heard Debbie’s story; I think it was about the penny belonging to a little boy who was trying to decide how to spend it.
At the end of the hour, as the bell rang and we pushed the desks back into tidy rows and columns, Miss Christy handed back our stories. In the hall outside the classroom, leaning against the faux brick wall, I read what she had written in purple ink. “You have a very good vocabulary for a seventh grade student. This is a good start, but I didn’t really feel like I was right there with the penny. Try to use more colorful language and remember ‘show, don’t tell.’” Keep on writing!” There was a smiley face at the end.
Thursday I pretended to be sick, thus avoiding the second writing exercise. Friday I sat mulishly in my chair as she read aloud, knowing I was safe from further humiliation because I had not actually written or turned in anything the day before. Monday, she was blessedly gone again, replaced by the stolid Mrs. Miller who appreciated the finesse with which I could describe “A Wrinkle in Time.” I did not write another “imagination story” for a very long time. Stacy is an HR manager in Minneapolis, Debbie runs a family business and Ben was never heard from after high school graduation.
I am a writer.