Saturday, January 06, 2007

I'm a writer

Twenty-seven years ago. Fifth grade, 1980. Sweaty, panting schoolchildren shuffled into their seats after recess for the high discipline of fifth grade math class. My beloved teacher (I loved him, we all did) opened a folder and began roll call. Name, assignment. Check. Check.

"Sharon, your math homework?"

"I didn't do it," I said airily. Boldly, even. My heart beat faster in my throat.

"But I saw you working on something all through recess."

"Oh! I've been writing a book instead." I looked around the room at blank, uncomprehending faces: this announcement didn't seem to have the impact I'd anticipated.

"I'm going to be a writer," I explained. "I don't need math."

"In my class you do." His dark brown eyes flicked at me gravely as he penciled in a zero next to my name in the grade book. "You'll get out your math book and join the rest of us. Now."

"I'm disappointed in you," he said. The death knell of pronouncements.

You won't be when I'm famous, I whispered darkly, chin tucked into my chest, opening the math book with resolute dignity.

Ah, rebellion tastes so bitter. It's not as if I'd truly expected a different outcome. I didn't really believe I'd chanced upon the hidden escape clause that all the teachers already knew but couldn't by law tell us about: just publicly renounce math for fame and all will be forgiven.

I knew I'd shirked my responsibility. Okay, I was wrong! It's just that thirty minutes before I'd been seized with this idea: the idea of a story about a man foundering in depression, a man who seizes upon a hope -- "as a man adrift clings to flotsam," I scribbled in the margin feverishly.

But what kind of hope? A vain one? I'd had a half hour to go before the math assignment was due, but it seemed to me I'd read the phrase "Tis a hope, but a vain one" somewhere before. No, that wasn't original. I could do better.

I put aside the monochrome grey and white math page with watery blue lines ordering listless numbers on into infinity, and wrote furiously on a fresh sheet of paper, arms crooked and head bent to perpetuate a force field around me. Don't interrupt me, I'm hot right now.

So I had a good start on the story when math class started, but no assignment. I didn't mean to forsake my math assignment -- well, not exactly. The story I wanted to tell was just, somehow, so much more provocative than long division. (What truth can bring a man hope, what sorrows can pin him ever down?)

I began my math assignment over in earnest, covered in humility. But I couldn't help peering, piqued, at the teacher over the pages of my book.

Was it truly sorrow that deepened the corners of his eyes like that? Or was it....amusement?

I finished the story in Mrs. Dumars' reading class. I let the man drown. Strike a tally in the favor of public education's little hells, the most muscular being fifth-grade math and order above all things.


I woke up this morning and turned on my computer. Blinked and squinted into the sudden blue light a computer makes when it warms to a human.

Signed in to my email and read this message:

Your post earlier today seals it for me. Here's what needs to be done. Either you do it or I'm going to do it for you:

Copy out your longer blog entries and paste them into book form. Use Lulu or some other online publisher and get a book in print. Call it "Sharon's Life" or "Confessions of a Domestic Engineer" or something. It won't require much editing, just enough to make it read like a book instead of a blog. You can even illustrate it.

I will buy one. I'll buy two if that's what it takes to entice you forward.

No more delays. Your public is waiting.

I grinned.

I sat back in my desk chair and folded my hands across my stomach and just grinned.

I'll be thanking you, in my reply email, for waking me up with such an incredible compliment.
But I'm also thanking you now.