Friday, October 2, 2015
I Hate Writing
The little boy clung tightly to his mother's hand, sure of her navigation past the treacherous crosswalk dividing their Navy base housing and Vallejo Elementary School. He hated having to hold anyone's hand, but knew there were times it made sense, and that it usually made sense to not fight the wiry, 5' 2" mom who demanded he grab her hand.
She was a beautiful mom, hard to dismiss, with her attitude and vocal demeanor. She was confident and outspoken, but her beautiful blue eyes were surprisingly accurate replicas of his own, so he knew she must have at least some deep wisdom to follow. She dragged him up to the counter for check in and asked if she could enroll him in kindergarten, despite his age. At four, he was already reading and could write a little, but they insisted he was too young, and to try back next year.
A year passed and the same pretty mom dragged him again to the school and enrolled him, albeit a year younger than most of the rest. He immediately had trouble. A year younger, and scrawny for any age, the walking attitude loved the stories and activities, but the little one had trouble assimilating with the others. His tried and true resolution to conflict was to carefully apply teeth to others arms. This was, and probably still is, against the rules. He also refused to pay attention and reveled in disrupting the class, apparently intent on inciting rebellion in others three foot tall.
The kindergarten teacher had had enough. It came to his favorite time of the day, story time, but she walked him to the back of class and told him that only kids were allowed to hear the stories and not animals. "Only animals bite others" and they are clearly not allowed to join in all the reindeer games. Shocked and dejected, he stared back with unreasonably, anime sized eyes and his mouth shaped like an "O". He refused to cry. He was still in charge of his biting decisions. And then and there, he chose story time over ever biting again. At least in anger.
Mom was less than happy with the animal comparison, however accurate, and met with the teacher to say she wanted to pull him from school. Finally, the teacher relented.
"He is the only one in my class who can read and write. Please don't pull him out. We have a boy named Sam, who is incredibly shy. He never wants to participate. Your son pulls him aside for every lesson and helps him with it. Can I suggest something? Could you go over the lessons each night with him, so he can continue to help Sam?"
Mom finally relented in turn. She agreed to go over the lessons each night with him, as this was one hour less of him getting into trouble elsewhere. She did not mention having to hide the delicious Wonder bread on top of the fridge and his scaling the counter to steal it, but it was close in mind.
Time progressed nicely, with nary an incident in the first grade. Second grade was another matter. The teacher quickly sized up the problem children and decided she in reality only had one genuine one. It came time to read and most of the kids were stumbling over "Dick sees Spot run." The precocious six year old was having none of this. When it was his turn to read, he read. Oh man, he read. He read just as fast as he could. Too fast. The teacher stopped him and insisted he read slower, for the other kids. He tried. Miserably. He read what he thought was normal speed. Then the teacher gently encouraged him.
"Damn it! I told you to read slower!"
The class froze. Teachers are not allowed to cuss. Even second graders know that, for pity's sake. The little boy smiled, more than satisfied that he had incited some small rebellion, even if only in his own mind. She sent him home with a note to sign which he accidentally misplaced. He proceeded to ask mom if "damn" was a bad word. Then he went back to school and asked every kid on the playground to share what words they knew to bring back home for interpretation. "Jackass" was cleared by mom as borderline, as it was an actual animal. "Shit" and "fuck" were less borderline and she encouraged him to stop bringing new words home, as he knew damn well they were bad.
Fast forward to the fourth grade, albeit much trouble could be described for the third one. Dad decided to drag him and the rest of the family members much further than the crosswalk, from sunny California to middle America, just a few miles short of the Canadian border. Father was granted a special education teaching position on the Belcourt, North Dakota Indian reservation. The fact the scrawny boy was white was already intolerable. But they tested him and because of his scores, put him in with the sixth graders. As social experiments go, this one went terribly. He was already a year younger and smaller than his fellow fourth graders, but the sixth graders were practically twice his size. At least he was still the smartest kid in class. This granted him quite the honor of getting his ass kicked every day for being too smart and too white. Luckily, he was already unstable and knew how to turn a bad situation around until it was truly worse. The daily calls on brawls and bloody pitfalls were a decent sign this scrawny square peg needed to go into a different hole.
Fast forward to fifth grade. Escaped back to New York, the still scrawny boy easily won the class spelling contest, much against his will. Then it came time in the school assembly for each class champion to go on stage to compete with the others. They called his name. He refused. Those fellow punks about him chuckled and he refused even more. They called his name again and the teacher insisted he go up. He insisted she shut up. He didn't go on stage, but he did get a nice little write up. These would increase with alarming regularity.
There is much to be said about grades six through ten. Not particularly good things. There were a lot of suspensions and a lot less winning of spelling bees. The A's turned to B's to C's to D's. He was great at math and paid attention in History because it intrigued him, but English and writing were his least favorite by far. Then he tried daily substance abuse and not attending. The D's turned to F's.
Finally, the surprisingly still scrawny ninth grader sat motionless before the impending fatherly advice.
"You've been held back for non-attendance and refusing to do your homework. But I have a solution. I can send you to military camp. Apparently they are free and I can just sign you up. Or... or I can send you to a psychiatrist. Or I can kill you. I can make other kids. I am still of age."
This really happened.
The scrawny teen thought this over carefully, trying to decide which would cost him the least effort and most chance of survival. Father suggested another alternative which was this college English teacher would tutor him for the summer, so he would not stay back a grade. He thought to ask if he could still be an asshole and drink and smoke between classes, but decided it wise to squelch that.
Then summer came. It was hot and miserable, but at least dad was planting him in a chair each day and droning on about about spelling, comprehension and some other crap. Then he instructed him to write.
"I hate writing."
"It's boring and stupid and useless."
"Those are great reasons. Now, shut up. You want your voice to be heard in the world, but you feel like it is not. With writing, you can make sure you are heard correctly. You can rewrite and edit everything until you are sure you are heard and not misheard. There may be a hundred ways to say something, but only one way to truly say it best. With writing, you can do that."
A light bulb went on. Maybe it was a real light or metaphorical. But it went on. And he started writing a little. And then writing some more.
And now, thanks to laptops and the internet, they can't shut him up. Not even the second grade teacher with all her best blurts and cusses. And he passed his finals and proceeded to the next grade.
Now, he is old and gray and taking his first real college course ever, on creative writing. His father lies three thousand miles away in bed with a trach tube attached. It has been quite a while since dad could speak, let alone write. The little boy will forever remain grateful that his father sat him down every day that miserably hot summer and convinced him there is another way to make oneself heard.