Tuesday, October 23, 2012

How to Skate

So I decided to do Finslippy's "The Practice of Writing." The fourth prompt was all about finding a writing routine, creating not necessarily a space or a ritual, but just a time, a block of time in the day that is and will continue to be the time for writing: "Tell the story of fifteen important minutes of your life."

I was a shy child, overweight and unathletic. I did well academically, not because I worked hard at, but because it came easily. Through elementary school and into what in our town was called “junior high school,” I did what was expected of me. My grades were perfect, or nearly so, I was selected to participate in the Gifted and Talented program, and I received a Letter of Commendation for my performance on the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test.

But mostly, in class and out of it, I wanted to be invisible, to get through my day without being very much noticed at all. I sat in the back when I could, raised my hand as little as possible, and never volunteered.

Finally, in the seventh grade, in the English class of the fearsome teacher whose reputation for screaming and throwing chalkboard erasers preceded her all the way down into the elementaries, I was required to perform an oral report in front of the class, to present a topic in the style of a news anchor. I did the research. I wrote the material. And as the other students made their presentations, I fidgeted, sweating, and tried to choke down the butterflies roiling in my gut. At last, my turn came. I sat down at the teacher’s desk, looked out at her and all those faces, and stammered.

“Good evening. Tonight’s lead story…” And I stopped. I hadn’t forgotten the words; they were written on a piece of paper in front of me. The teacher waited. The students shifted in their seats. Someone giggled. The teacher glared and said, “OK, go ahead.” But I didn’t. I just sat there. She came back to the front and stood at the desk, staring at me and looking as intimidating as it’s possible for a 5-foot, 90-pound, 55-year-old woman to look.

“Did you do the research?”


“Did you write the report?”


“Then read it.”


I could hear the clock ticking. I could see that one of the buttons on her blouse was undone. I couldn’t look up at her face.

“Just read it. We’re not going anywhere until you finish this assignment.”

“I’m not doing it.”

She stared at me, letting the silence press down on my shoulders. I couldn’t raise my eyes to meet her glare or look into the stunned faces of the other students. I stared blankly at the paper I’d written.

“I can do this as long as you can,” she barked. Her hands were on her hips. The yardstick she used to whack students’ desktops for emphasis was in easy reach. Minutes crept by.

“I’m not doing it,” I said again. Finally I stood up and walked past her, feeling all of those eyes and not daring to meet any of them. I sat down at my desk.

“Then you’re getting a zero!” she yelled, and then called the next student forward.

In that moment, I learned how little power these fearsome adult beings called “teachers” really had over me. I could turn in assignments or not, and all they could do was make a little mark in a book, a mark that affected me not at all. I did well on the tests, I did virtually none of the homework, and still I got by. That was the day I learned to skate.

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