Remember in ‘A Christmas Story’ when Ralphie anxiously turned his English essay into his teacher? Remember how he envisioned clouds parting as his teacher read it? All crimes against proper grammar would suddenly be redeemed and world peace would reign upon the earth?
My last assignment of senior year was suppose to be like that. Inspired by angst channeled from hours of sitting late night at a dinner table with my mathematician father who wouldn’t let me do anything else until I finished my homework, I decided to write the required short story about a girl who was mad at her daddy….until he catches an incurable disease and dies.
Details are sketchy because it’s been 20+ years but of all my terribly written projects, THIS is the most embarrassing.
And true to the crushing blow of poor Ralphie’s ‘You’ll shoot your eye out’ moment, my heart sank when I saw my mediocre grade written with red ink, followed by the words, ‘…it was a bit melodramatic…’
I swore off writing for good.
But not really. I’ve produced a lot of stuff since then. Only a fraction of it is actually worth sharing. (Wasn’t it Thomas Edison who said something about genius and the ratio of perspiration to inspiration?)
This fall, I ran into my sweet English teacher at a friend’s wedding. (Another one of the cool things about being from a very small town.) We sat together and chatted for a few minutes. My newly released book came up in conversation and she gave me the ultimate invitation: She invited me to join her at her book club for a reading. She even invited me to stay and contribute to the discussion about Harper Lee’s ‘Go Set a Watchman’.
I’m pretty sure Ralphie and I are soulmates. The clouds parted again. Here was my chance. I had the opportunity to redeem all grammatical felonies against humanity. Well, at least mine anyway. World peace was in the bag…
And then sometime between the wedding reception and the book club meeting, terror struck. I started having dreams of being back in the 90’s with my big 90’s hair using words too big for my comprehension at the time. And it finally dawned on me that I might have to say something intelligent to this woman I’ve greatly admired from the time I was young. The trouble is, and those who know me best can attest, I crack under pressure. (If I ever become famous, I pray KSL has lost the footage of my naked interview on the nightly news.)
I’m happy to report, the night of the event arrived. I wore something conservative and wore my big 90’s hair back in a side bun. And in a moment I consider one of this year’s best (and quite possibly Top 20 of my adult life), I read my first published work to my high school English teacher.
She was as graceful and as encouraging as ever. Her feedback was positive and enthusiastic and she even complimented me on my iambic pentameter. (Secretly, I was 17 again squealing at her words. She couldn’t have known that was the hardest part of telling the story and that I’ve been working on it FOR YEARS.)
These days one might think a teacher relegating your work to the black hole of mediocrity is far from encouraging but I’ve come to realize nothing could be farther than the truth. Had she slapped an A++++++++++++ on my paper that day so long ago, I’m pretty sure I would’ve been destined to be on an author’s version of American Idol with a over inflated ego, reading an essay that would make me eligible for parole in year 2054. Her feedback was honest, real and yet, somehow, still encouraging. It also prepared me to receive criticism that, while sometimes painful, has molded me into a better writer.
I still have a long way to go but I’m getting there. And I have my English teachers, Nancy Roberts and Robin Nielson to thank for it.
For all of you past students curious about the book club meeting, she was just as charming as I remember.
Her report of Harper Lee’s life, sharing her research and knowledge of the story, reminded me of what an extraordinary human being she is. Always an advocate, passionate about human rights, she is Scout Finch to the core. I don’t know why I didn’t see it before. And had Lee known Nancy, I’m convinced they would have been the best of friends.
This idea, further proven by her choice of desserts…She made bundt cakes to honor Calpurnia.
Would it be melodramatic to admit the evening was truly one of the greatest honors of my adulthood?
(See?! I just might need Melodrama Rehab.)
Those who know her husband, Coach Roberts, might be delighted to know that Nancy’s mother collected Royal Doulton beer steins for him. How appropriate that William Shakespeare and Mark Twain sit with dozens of others on an armoire in their living room.
Redemption is a funny thing. It changes the way you view the past. It might be kinda fun to compare and contrast my work from a lifetime ago. I might pick up that terrible English paper and actually read it. I might even read it out loud for someone else to hear.
It’s okay. You can laugh at it too.