I tricked my mother into buying me my first journal in the summer before fifth grade. It was a composition notebook, the kind with the black and white dots in a random pattern. During our back-to-school shopping at the local suburban superstore compound, I snuck the contraband notebook into a shopping cart already overflowing with school supplies of every type—folders, scissors, glue sticks, and Trapper Keepers. I nestled it between a lunchbox and calendar, hoping my mom wouldn’t notice.
It wasn’t that she would have begrudged me the money; my parents were always willing to spend money on educational endeavors, as attested to by my collection of Hooked on Phonics and Schoolhouse Rock! Videos. I just wanted privacy. I did not want to answer questions about the notebook, didn’t want her to know I intended to begin a journal. Had my mother asked, I would have told her that the dotted-notebook was required, flashing the school supply list too quickly for her to ascertain that it didn’t contain a line item for a composition notebook.
I wish I could say that I wanted the journal because I knew that I was destined for greatness as a writer, but the reason was much simpler: I didn’t have any friends and I intended to use the notebook to make it seem like that was a choice. There were a myriad of reasons for my solitary state, most of which now seem like excuses: My family moved often, I was shy and anxious, and even as a child I was skeptical of the motives of strangers. It only took a few tastes of being teased and having my feelings hurt to adopt an adage: Being alone is easier than being disappointed.
Not having friends is socially awkward in a way that multiples loneliness, squares and cubes it. Living without closeness of others is obviously painful in itself, but think of all the little daily opportunities for you to be reminded of your singular status. Something as simple as taking a meal in public becomes a cause for sadness and embarrassment. Even as adults, most people don’t like to dine alone. It’s difficult to know where you should look and if you should even smile, because it’s suspect to see a stranger smiling without understanding what provoked it. The menu is taken away and you’re left with nothing to occupy your time outwardly, and it can be terrifying. In these instances, it’s important to provide your own entertainment and focal points, lest you stare too long or erupt in tears and storm out of the restaurant (or elementary school cafeteria) because the pressure of keeping up your façade becomes too great.
Some lonely children might have avoided their isolation by bringing their GameBoy to school, but the only game I had was Zelda and I never figured out the object of the game beyond swinging the 8-bit sword at bushes. Having a sketchpad would have been fraudulent, as drawing was never my forte, and at that time I was not yet a reader, so I settled on the composition notebook because it seemed mysterious and mature.
My mother failed to detect my ruse, and the journals have been part of my life ever since. The inaugural journal lasted part of the school-year in Georgia, before we were informed we would be moving to Wisconsin. Having had mixed results with public schools, it was decided that my older sister and I would attend a private Catholic school, reputed to be the best in the area for education and molding of impressionable youth. On our family tour, we were led through the church during a student mass. As the weighted doors slammed behind us, I hesitantly dipped my fingers in the holy water, following the lead of the Principal and my mother, before climbing the narrow stairs to the balcony. My father’s hand was on my back, urging me to the top despite my trepidation. The singing of pint-sized do-gooders in plaid skirts and peter-pan collars filled the oaken loft with subpar harmonies, rattling the stained glass Jesus-windows with every crescendo.
The tour during mass was meant to appeal to my interest in singing, but the prospect of trading my favorite hooded sweatshirt for mary-janes, knee-length skirts, and plaid headbands that I’d later learn dig into your head and leave permanent indents behind your ears, terrified me. The children in the loft were not like me: They were proper and angelic, as though they’d been cut from Pottery Barn catalogs, and decoupaged to the wooden pews for their weekly praising of the Christ.
After a homily about ham and communion, we returned to the principal’s office and my parents signed away my educational well-being to the keepers of faith and the Ten Commandments. After the contracts were executed, we were escorted to a basement supply closet, where my parents could purchase our uniforms. When it was discovered they did not have uniforms available in my size on hand, and that it would be three weeks before mine would arrive, I was relieved. However, when it was revealed that I would have to wear the boys’ uniform of ill-fitting navy pants and a sky-blue polo shirt with every button buttoned, it wasn’t exactly the alternative I’d hoped for—I was awkward enough without bending gender to class of 23 judgmental peers.
As the weeks passed, so did my opportunity to make friends. My southern accent, affinity for baseball cards, and inability to speak above a whisper around my classmates without feeling as though I’d faint weren’t conducive to socializing. My only friend was a uniquely awkward girl who happened to live next door, a tragically unhip lover of the Spice Girls who gave the popular girls everything they wanted, including an unlimited supply of Chupa Chup lollipops. As long as she kept them in sugar, they’d leave her alone, teasing her only behind her back.
She was the lucky one: They teased me to my face. It didn’t take long for my journal to become a constant companion at school, since I was withdrawn and always scribbling, it was assumed by teachers that I was a writer (it was also well known among the teachers that I did not understand math, so they may have arrived at this conclusion by process of elimination). Before I could explain what the journal was really for, I was enrolled in advanced English, the most prestigious class at Saint Francis Borgia (SFB) Catholic School, for my sixth grade year.
Though she wasn’t a nun, or even Catholic, the advanced English class was taught by Mrs. K. To this day, none of her former students know what the K stood for. She signed all documents, including hall passes and detention forms, with just an initial, a gigantic K which, which was intimidating despite its simplicity. Mrs. K was built like Santa Claus, portly, round, and old, but the jollity of old Saint Nick had been replaced by the surliness of a cantankerous widow with the phlegmy smokers cough that plagued a pack-a-day-sinner.
Mrs. K lived just a couple blocks from the school and walked there every day in an oversized knee-length quilted jacket, wearing it even in the warmer months. Mrs. K was the closest thing our small town had to a crazy cat-lady living in a haunted house at the end of the block—except she was no recluse, children were exposed to her often as she taught classes, monitored the cafeteria, and peered out from behind the bushes at recess, keeping an eye on young minds while sneaking Marlboro Reds behind the rectory.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Mrs. K seemed to disdain children, especially the younger ones, but she dedicated her life to education anyway. Other teachers seemed fearful of Mrs. K—the younger teachers straight out of University didn’t see her as an equal, but as an intimidating piece of the institution that could send them to detention as well. Mrs. K had been part of the establishment since the establishment began: Students were to respect the priest, pray to Jesus, and live in fear that Mrs. K would send them to detention, where they would eat their buttered noodles and yeast rolls in penitent silence, squirming in her baleful presence.
My sister, who was two grades ahead of me, warned me that Mrs. K’s class would be difficult, and that those students who could not grasp the curriculum would not only be returned to remedial English, but would be relentlessly mocked for being stupid along the way. She didn’t have to tell me that last part: When I was in fifth-grade, a teacher mistakenly told my class that a fellow student was dyslexic, which earned her the nickname of Amanda Dumb-dumb for the rest of the year.
The more I learned about advanced English, the more I didn’t want to go. It was as if those who had gone through it and survived had emerged from a sweatshop where child ghostwriters were flogged until capable of push out works of great literature, or at the very least, New York Times bestsellers. The smugness of those who survived a year of advanced English was worn like a badge of courage through the halls of SFB. The intelligence of those students was never questioned; it was just assumed that they were brilliant and well rounded. Advanced English was Harvard; everything else was Community College.
Throughout the summer, I had nightmares about English and my status as middle school elite. In my dream, Mrs. K would order me to the front of the room, and I’d stand there, chalk in hand, expecting to write something on the board. Instead, between hacking coughs she would croak, “Cee is too dumb to be here!” and hand me a slip of paper that confirmed my demotion and sent me reeling towards the door, the smartest kids in school laughing and pointing as I fled. In contrast, the hallway that received the condemned little girl would be empty and silent but for the squeaking of my Mary-Janes on the peeling linoleum floors and the sounds of my ragged breathing as I slunk away, defeated, cast out from among the high-achieving authors of room 4F. The death-march from 4F to the room in which my now-fellow remedial idiots were penned always stretched on for longer than it possibly could have given the short distance involved, but then, hallways are always longer when they’re punitive.
The night before school started, I sat on the edge of the bathtub as my sister brushed her teeth and prepared me for the upcoming school year, the Aquafresh foaming from her mouth every time she spoke. She told me about lunch tables, gym teachers, and the privileges of no longer being lumped together with the elementary school kids at events. I still had one thing on my mind. “What about kids that don’t do well in advanced English?” I asked, watching her reflection hunched over the sink, deep in gingivitis remediation. “It happened to Tom Franks last year,” my sister reminded, grabbing a fistful of her curly brunette locks and twisting them around her fingers as she spit Scope into the sink. “One day he was in the advanced class, the next he’d been sent back to regular English.”
My eyes widened in fear.
“During lunch everyone asked why he’d been set down,” she saw the fear in my eyes, yet she went on with the story anyway. “He said it was because he wanted to read books instead of write, but everyone knew he was too dumb to be there.”
Too dumb? I was too dumb.
My sister applied Noxzema to her own cheeks before turning to face me, smothering my cheeks in an absurdly thick layer of pimple-cream, which I didn’t need, as I gripped the edges of the ceramic tub, knuckles whitening, the fear of the beauty regimen and advanced English consuming me. She sent me to my room to let the mask harden, and the nightmare returned.
Waiting for the bus on the first day of school felt suffocating. It was the first day in pleated skirts, the first day without unfettered access to the basketball hoop on my driveway, and the first day that I could be exposed as a failure at writing. When I arrived at school, I rushed down the hallway to collect my schedule from the office, hoping that Mrs. Dalton, the chief bureaucrat of the establishment, had placed me in regular English by accident—one I wouldn’t bother to correct. Much to my disappointment, my future was laid out for me on a 5”x10” hot pink note card containing the blueprint of my sixth-grade life including First Period: Advanced English.
Despite my poor vision, I sat in the last row in the hope that I would go unnoticed. I was nestled between a fake ficus tree, the wooden cubicles that supplement lockers and rows of hooks for backpacks and winter jackets when Mrs. K entered, her presence announced by a wheezing cough that preceded her into a room. A moment later, she waddled into view. “Students in my classroom are required to sit in alphabetical order for the remainder of the year,” she barked. “No exceptions. Start moving.”
Fearful, the young writers sprang into action, filing themselves into the rows alphabetically. As you might guess with a name like Cee Angi, I moved to the front row, mere feet from Mrs. K’s lectern. Plans to be anonymous? Foiled.
The concept of the first day of school being for orientation was lost on Mrs. K. Instead of fluff introductory assignments like “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” or an impromptu round of Show and Tell, Mrs. K established order immediately, passing around thick packets of Xeroxed papers, each page containing 50 sentences, front and back. For the duration of the school year, we would be required to diagram 50 sentences a night, identifying gerunds, nouns, and parts of speech, then submit to a sentence composition interrogation the following day, the inquisitor a lady who legend had it, enjoyed sending children screaming from the classroom to cry underneath the steps in the school’s basement, especially those in first period.
I had trouble focusing on the nightly assignments; even as an adult I still don’t understand direct objects. There is a fear in learning new tasks, especially writing. The notion of making a mistake, especially publicly, has always been my greatest paralytic: There are times even now that I would rather appear to be ignorant or ill-prepared than risk offering the wrong information. Whispers in the cafeteria about the girl that was just too dense to know the difference between adverbs and adjectives was a Scarlet A I wasn’t willing to wear. I spent most evenings of my sixth grade year perched in the window seat of my bedroom with the door locked, homework packet on my lap, writing answers and then erasing them, filled with doubt and hesitation. It’s a feeling that has never gone away, except now as a writer I delete line and after line of composition, immobilized by the possibility of a negative judgment from readers and peers, but especially my editors.
When it was my turn to diagram a sentence for the class, I would fidget in my seat, nervously thumbing my way down the page to the correct sentence. “Oh, I didn’t get that one,” I’d squeak. Even if I had an answer, it was easier to pretend the page was blank.
“Why don’t you do the next one?” Mrs. K would encourage, holding me to the coals until I supplied an answer.
“Didn’t get that one, either.”
Mrs. K would ask one of her star students, like Precocious Anne or Clever Maxwell, to pick up where I’d fumbled, as she began the long waddle over to the upper-left drawer of her desk, where the detention slips were kept. At no time did her eyes leave me—she was so skilled in the art of administering discipline that she could fill out a detention form without ever breaking eye-contact with the student whose attainder she was writing—and in front of everyone, I was served with a summons, sentenced to sentences, rather than recess. The lunch-time detentions would continue until I was caught up on all of my homework assignments, which meant days scribbling on photocopies instead of playing four square. I learned bitterness and resentment within the first month, which I wish could say was enough to calm the anxiety and modify my behavior. I continued to accrue enough detention slips from Mrs. K to plaster a billboard by the highway with the phrase, “Cee Sucks” and for the first several months of advanced English, it was the truth.
The second component of advanced English with Santa’s evil sister involved the “Perfect Five-Sentence Paragraph.” The legend of Mrs. K was one of tyrannical ruler of the written word, but it was evident she was passionate about reporting and stories. A picture of Ernest Hemingway, who some students assumed was her late husband, looked grimly down from above her desk, her avowed focus molding young mind into writers.
After learning sentence structure, we learned how to build paragraphs. We attained this knowledge by reading new stories and ranking paragraphs and sentences by order of importance to the story-telling process Anything Mrs. K assigned for reading could also be tested for comprehension; at any moment, Mrs. K might pluck a word from an article and ask for a full definition. Once it was clear what a “Perfect Five-Sentence Paragraph” looked like, we were tasked with creating our own.
Each week, we would get ten topics, nothing more than vague concepts like, bird-watching, houses, or electricity, from which we would have to create a perfect paragraph. The paragraphs were graded on Mrs. K’s subjective scale, she marking her verdict across the top of the page in felt-tip green pen—an ink that still elicits chills every time I see it.
The Grading Scale
Outstanding: If you received an Outstanding, it was akin to getting a new car for your 16th birthday or throwing a perfect game. This was the elusive white whale of advanced English and if you got one, you’d essentially been given a free pass to gloat over Handi-snaks in the cafeteria for the rest of the week. (Outstanding had no marks at all; no revisions required)
Excellent: An Excellent was much like being allowed to stay up past your bedtime to watch extra innings and eat Oreos. (Excellent usually had minor changes to punctuation; no revisions required)
Good: Most weeks, Good was the best score awarded, meaning that it was further above average than “good” would seem to imply. I’d like to think Mrs. K put Good on the grading scale to keep her students grounded. (Good required some changes to grammar or sentence structure; revisions required until an “OK” was earned, which didn’t necessarily mean that you have achieved Good, but merely that you had survived the whole torturous exercise).
Poor: Poor meant… well, poor. It meant that you’d done a terrible job and strayed off topic. Instead of writing about dogs, you wrote about dog breeds, which meant that you didn’t effectively grasp how to write about dogs, which meant that you’d have to go back and do it again…and again…and again… until you really understood what it meant to write about dogs. (Revisions required until an “OK” was earned, which meant that you had been embarrassed enough that day).
See Me: If your paragraph had “See Me” in angry green cursive across the top, the last thing you wanted to do was See Her.Seeing her meant she would try to help you by making vague suggestions. It was as if you’d stopped to talk to the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland: you left that conversation more confused than when you’d started. Seeing her also meant a detention form with your name on it (also in green felt-tip), because “See Me” paragraphs were required to be completed in her presence so that they could be immediately evaluated. If there was ever a feeling of writing for your life, this was it. (See Me didn’t have any edit marks, which was worse than seeing a paper littered with green pen strokes; revisions required until an “OK” was received or until you were taken behind the church, where Mrs. K had her cigarettes in secret, never to be seen again.
Parents who put their children through advanced English should have purchased stock in a paper mill, because some weeks the remedial advanced kids were submitting 15-20 less than perfect five sentence paragraphs a week, hoping to reach the final “OK.” Some had terrible content, most were riddled with errors—I even submitted one paragraph that had six sentences, which automatically scored a “See Me.”
“I think you know exactly what you did wrong, don’t you?” Mrs. K said, peering at me disapprovingly through her Sally Jessy Raphael glasses.
“If I knew what I did wrong, do you think I would have done it?” I grumbled inaudibly as I walked back to my seat in detention to sulk behind my paper fortress of my errant paragraphs.
My record for rejected paragraphs at a given time was 28, 10 newly assigned and 18 lingering revised paragraphs, and that isn’t even a school record. The paragraphs were like being buried under mountains of credit-card debt or some sort of multi-level marketing scheme: There was the remote promise of becoming a fully actualized writer, but the process required scheming and dedication.
In sixth grade I had raw talent, but remained petrified of rejection. My anxiety made it difficult for me to even try to be creative; I didn’t want to be praised because praise meant unwanted attention, and my writing suffered for it. I’d remove all semblance of personality from everything I did because I wanted to drift through adolescence unnoticed-It wasn’t my writing I wanted to perfect but the art of remaining invisible.
Mrs. K didn’t take my weak and ineffectual submissions as an excuse to dismiss me as an intellectual lightweight. When I was detained, she would work with me, partially shedding the image of tyrant to teach me one-on-one. She would sit on the edge of her desk, remove her glasses, and explain topics in depth. We would explore stories not discussed in class, and read newspaper and magazine articles together. Even when I felt so thwarted in my attempts to attain paragraphical perfection that I was at the point of tears, she continued to push me.
While she was rarely personable, an ogre to be feared, in detention she was different. I won’t say that I ever felt at ease in her presence, but in candid moments it was obvious that despite her reputation, she dedicated her time to the success of her students. Mrs. K didn’t host detention because she liked punishing dunces, but rather because she enjoyed interactions with students that were eager to learn but required individual attention.
When she taught in detention, her features softened as she discussed literature. She was more amenable to questions that I wouldn’t dare ask in a group setting, and sometimes she’d chuckle, the phlegm rising in her throat, when I’d suggest themes in the stories we read that weren’t grounded in reality, themes that existed only in the naïve mind of a sixth grader.
When pressed, Mrs. K would edit my paragraphs immediately, green pen clutched in her arthritic fist as I paced nervously in front of her desk. As she highlighted my flaws on the page, she’d mumble to herself, shaking her head with such condemnation she’d wake her dandruff in the act. If I wrote something particularly offensive to her sensibilities, she’d put the pen down, and prop her head up with her hands, her favorite position for lecturing.
Pot roasts are done, and people are finished. Unless you were just slow-cooked in an oven at 350 degrees for two hours, you are finished. You’re not tough and chewy meat, don’t act like it.
When you think you’re finished writing a piece, go back to the top and start again. When you think you are finished with that, go back to the top and start again.
Don’t tell us a story, show us a story with words.
Our intimate interactions and explorations rivaled those of the best professors I had years later in college: Her ability to reach students, to reach me, was life-changing. I was no longer afraid. Oh, I still had anxieties, but I realized I could really write and a transformation took place: Not of me, but of my black and white composition notebook. It was no longer a prop.
Before the Christmas holiday, the middle school students put on a Christmas pageant to entertain the elementary school and parents. This wasn’t the typical presentation of baby Jesus in a manger, but a variety show in which students performed original pieces, read famous works or reenacted television comedy sketches. Each student was required to submit a segment for review by the teachers, and I decided to write an original poem about hiding negative feelings when given tacky or impersonal gifts from distant relatives (a poem I very much wish I could share with you now, because it still seems topical).
Because my fear of authority trumped my fear of being in the spotlight, I reluctantly agreed to read my poem during the variety show. Standing on the stage, fear was present in my voice in every line; my delivery was dreadful. The ineffectual delivery of such a sarcastic poem had an unintended effect—the audience mistook by terror for acting, and received the poem as being far funnier than it actually was. The Christmas pageant gave me the confidence to be creative and put my work on exhibition. Mrs. K gave me confidence in being a writer, urging an understanding for themes and structure well beyond the limits of an average sixth grader.
In the final months of the school year, my paragraphs were all current and I no longer had detention. Most days, I spent my lunch hours with Mrs. K anyway. She helped me write research papers, read my poetry and prose, and chuckled often at my overuse of commas (which is still a problem, ask any of my editors). I have several college degrees, but I carry the lessons of sixth-grade English with me more than those of any class I have ever taken.
Were it not for Mrs. K, I would still be scribbling in notebooks in secret, hiding them between the mattresses from my mother and lovers. Finding courage and a voice as a writer is difficult, and whenever I have success as a writer, I think of Mrs. K and hope that she would be proud that the pillars of good writing, a strong work ethic, and a thirst for storytelling are scrawled across my brain in green felt-tip, just a she planned it.
Sometimes the most difficult lessons are the ones worth learning. I often wonder what path I would have taken if I had never secretly purchased a journal, if I’d never started writing, or if my family hadn’t moved to Wisconsin. Perhaps there would have been another teacher to act as both tyrant and advocate as I learned cadence and story-telling, but perhaps it would never have clicked for me. Among my biggest regrets is that my family relocated after sixth grade and I lost touch with Mrs. K. Since she was in her late sixties when I was in her class, it’s likely she’s no longer here with us. Every time I learn a new skill as a writer, I think of her. Even if it’s perfecting a memorandum for work, doing a research-heavy piece for Baseball Prospectus, or writing a love letter, I’m reminded of all the lessons I learned from her. Though she kept me prisoner in lunchtime detention, I can’t help but think she would be my biggest advocate as a grown-up and a writer.
If I could talk to her now, more than anything I would just want to say thank you. You’ve earned your Outstanding, Mrs. K.