Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tales out of School

Because it's fall, and my journaling time is limited, my blog has been more journalish than blog-like. If it's TMI, then don't keep reading.

I just posted that previous piece without a careful edit. And just like last night, when I was feeling all wound up until I wrote my pro and con list, I feel like I have marbles rattling around in my brain. My thoughts are granola wrappers crumpled on the backseat of the car. Oh! That is a metaphor that even Mr. Labonte would have appreciated.

Speaking of that, I will tell you the story of my high school English teacher. And not the whole story, even though it makes this part of the story more interesting. I'll just tell the parts that are mine to tell.

When I was a little girl, I was alone a lot, but I was very rarely lonely. I read constantly, I listened to my records, and I wrote little stories. About rich girls with servants and dollhouses. About animals solving mysteries in a zoo. Eventually, I started to try to write a diary. My father stole and read my diary when I was 12, and disasterous consequences followed. I stopped writing stories, until I got to tenth grade and took my first writing class with Mr. Labonte. I had heard about the class from a friend who was a sophomore and already taking it, how challenging it was on your spirit, how deeply it made you dig, and how much fun it was to figure out what you actually thought about things.

When we started, we wrote little stories and essays. I loved it, and I always got good grades, even though Lisa would stay up all night and get a C, and Chris would get his back with a comment that said, "So What?" until his tutor went to the principal about it.

This one time, I wrote a story about going to church on a Christmas morning and hearing a little girls say, "Happy Birthday, Jesus" to the manger. It was totally true, and for whatever reason, Mr. Labonte loved it and read it aloud to the class. I was so proud. I can't actually remember feeling prouder of anything up to that point in my life, which is kind of saying something, because I had had a cool life so far. Two lessons lingered from that. One, that the best writing is simply the truth. Two, that I had to be a writer. It was my passion.

We had to do foolish things, like diagramming sentences and taking these foolish vocabulary tests that everyone cheated on. Someone had an old answer book and would pass around the answers the day before. Kids would make acronyms or something. I didn't bother with that because I read so much and vocabulary was very easy for me. I was never bothered that everyone else did that. It didn't even occur to me to care. We corrected each other's papers, though, and the other way you could cheat was to cheat for your friend. I'll correct your paper, you correct mine, just make sure I get a B or better. I don't think we every discussed it; it was just understood. I was correcting Lisa's paper, and she was correcting mine. I remember the exact shift in the air when I realized the teacher was watching me erase things on her paper. And I remember the next wave of horror as I realized that the whole class already knew, and he had probably been watching me for a while.

I probably should have been suspended. I probably should have lost my role in the school play. I probably should have been kicked off student council.

I wasn't, though. As I remember it, he lowered my grade a whole grade, and gave me a week's detention. That was kind, now that I really think about it.

Most importantly, though, I learned about integrity. I'm not perfect, but I do try to be good. Well...mostly good, I guess. I'm better at it now than I have ever been before, but that was a major step for me. Knowing I had disappointed someone who thought so highly of me, and knowing that I would have to battle through a swampful o' shame to feel safe to be a writer again, and knowing that I wanted to be better than what I had shown of myself...that sense memory has helped to align my moral compass, I think.

Character is who you are when no one is watching. That's kind of a lot to learn in one class.

And now I'm writing. I'm trying to be truthful, to show and not tell. (Still working on that, as you can see. If the above were an essay I'd be slapping you over the head with a frying pan of a moral.) I'm taking a risk and making connections. Trying to raise daughters who do that, and inspire sixth graders to do that.

The Kelly Chronicles continue to be a work in progress.

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