Monday, March 30, 2009

 

In Which My Writing Days Are Over (circa 1978)...



Having a tough Monday, for some reason.

I'm coming up fast on my third month of unemployment, having exhausted the freelance work I drummed up, and come to the end of the job opportunities I sought in academia. Well, to be fair, I haven't heard back from the last place I interviewed with, but they were supposed to call me by Friday and it occurs to me that the only reason they didn't call me by Friday was because they offered the job to someone else and they're waiting to hear back from that person before they cut me loose, so it comes to the same thing as far as I'm concerned.

So, having a lousy day. I wouldn't say I've struck rock-bottom, but if I were to let go right now, I wouldn't have very far to fall, you know?

To top it off, today is my mother's birthday, which is just something I'm throwing in there because I can. Honestly, there's no reason it should be weighing on me, except for the fact that she should be alive to celebrate it. Or not celebrate it, as was more often the case. My parents were never big on celebrating their birthdays. But I still would have called her. I could stand to have a chat with her about now, come to think of it. Not because she would be comforting to me in that way that moms can be to their sons. Just the opposite. My mom knew, all too well, that feeling sorry for oneself was a bad habit to get into, worse than cigarettes or heroin or not returning your movies to the video store on time, and I can't think of one instance, ever, where she poor-babied me.

I hope that doesn't sound bitter, because I don't mean it as such. The truth is, some of the defining moments in my life occurred when I was brought low and my mom refused to let me feel bad about it.

In particular, I'm reminded of a grammar school teacher who, for a time seemed to take a personal interest in crushing me.

This would have started some time in the fifth grade, which would have made me nine going on 10. My family had only six months earlier moved from northern New England to the Middle West. I was therefore the new kid, and while I was braced to be treated with a certain amount of animosity, in fact my classmates welcomed me with exemplary kindness and equanimity.

It was Mr. F who made my misery his personal business.

Mr. F was not even my teacher--he taught the next grade up. But because our classes were so small--this was a very tiny town in the middle of Kansas--we 5th and 6th graders had many classes together, as well as recess and lunch. This gave Mr. F a chance to observe me and what he came to see as my "attitude problem" without going to the trouble of having me as a student and actually getting to know me. Then it was just a matter of waiting for me to step Out of Line. Or close enough to what passed for Out of Line in his fevered imaginings.

But the first I really knew of any of this was a wintry spring morning in late March. The morning Mr. F completely blindsided me.

In those days, my brother and I walked to school. It wasn't far, but on that cold morning, carrying my bookbag all the way over the bridge and up the slightly steep hill to school, I was a little winded. And as soon as I stepped into the corridor of our school, my glasses immediately fogged over from the heat. So I really was blind when I felt a strong hand grab me through the shoulder of my big old padded parka and shove me roughly up against the wall.

I peered over the top of my glasses to see a furious blur glaring back at me.

"Don't you give me one of your smart-aleck looks!" Mr. F boomed.

For some reason, I wasn't allowed to set down my bookbag, so I was forced to swipe my glasses off my face with one hand and rub them awkwardly on my sleeve. When I put them back on, I got a good, if slightly smeary, streaky look at Mr. F glowering down at me.

He was a big man. I recall that he stood taller than even our tallest basketball players, and those included some eighth graders who'd been held back two or three times, so I'm thinking Mr. F stood over six feet. He was a bulky fellow, with a great bulbous nose, and fleshy, jowly face. His grey hair was cut very short and square in flattop fashion. He looked like nothing so much as a drill sergeant gone slightly to seed. But with his towering presence and great booming voice, he made quite an impression when he was right up in your face like that, let me tell you.

Despite my tendency to be a bit of a smart-ass, I had never really been in terrible trouble as a kid. I was not a discipline case. I was generally respectful to teachers and could count on the fingers of one hand the times I'd got in trouble, and usually those amounted to a short rebuke shouted across a classroom or hallway for an unthinking moment of childlike carelessness or exuberance. Up to that point in my brief life, I'd never done anything to warrant a teacher actually laying hands on me and throwing me up against a wall and bellowing at me like a lunatic. I was scared shitless.

"What--? What--?" I tried.

"You don't say a word! Not. One. Word! To me!" he yelled, spittle flecking my glasses as he stabbed a great sausage-like finger in my face. "You get enough chance to run your smart-aleck mouth as it is!"

I shut right up and just looked up at him. Peripherally, I was aware that we were beginning to attract a bit of a crowd. It was first thing in the morning, after all, and lots of kids were coming through the door I'd just entered and we were sort of blocking the hall. A few boys--sixth graders who were actually students of Mr. F's--gave me little smirks behind their teacher's back, then passed on into their classroom. My own big brother, who had been only a few steps behind me, had entered, walked behind Mr. F, gave me a look of concerned curiosity that seemed to say What the hell did you manage to do in the five seconds you've been in school? then walked on. BB was my great protector for most of my elementary years, but it was understood that helping me with a teacher--especially a possibly unhinged one--was well beyond his powers.

A few of my own classmates had passed as well and one of them must have said something to my own teacher, because after a few awful moments of Mr. F staring at me, saying nothing (yet allowing me to say nothing), Mrs. B, my teacher, appeared meekly at Mr. F's side.

"Is there a problem?" she asked. "Did MM do something?"

Mr. F smiled an awful leering smile as he looked down at me. "Well, you tell us, MM. You just tell us, mister! You want to tell your teacher what you did?"

Seldom have I felt more helpless. Here I was, just a nine-year-old squirt with this towering great (and, I was beginning to feel certain, crazy) authority figure hunched over me, having only moments earlier shouted me into silence. Now he was asking--daring--me to speak.

"I don't--what??" I spluttered.

Mr. F narrowed his eyes. It was a terrible, dangerous expression, and I felt fear as I have never felt in my life. I had dealt with grown-ups with bad tempers--my own father, then pretty well embarked upon his career as a drunk, could have his mean, mean moments--but this was the devil I didn't know. And that uncertainty preyed on me.

"Where's your book?" Mr. F demanded, his hand suddenly held out, sausage fingers hinging in a gimme-gimme gesture.

I stood there, pinned to the corridor wall, only too aware of the growing weight of my bag, which was full of books of every kind.

"Book?" I repeated.

"Don't play dumb with me!" he bellowed, stabbing me in the breastbone with a sausage finger. "Your little yellow book that you write all your malicious thoughts in! Your writing days are over!"

I'm sure I gaped when he said this. Mr. F could only be referring to the book I simply knew in my mind as The Story Book. It was a hard-bound book with an unfortunate yellow-plaid design on the cover. But I didn't care about that. What I liked about the book--which had been a gift from my parents--was that it was full of blank pages. The previous year, my last teacher in New Hampshire had remarked to my Mom during a parent-teacher conference that I had a gift for storytelling. This didn't come as much of a surprise, I shouldn't think--both of my parents had brought me and my brother up on stories and it was natural that we should start telling a few of our own. But my teacher's novel suggestion had been that my parents encourage me to write mine down. So they got me the book and that's what I had done. Initially, I had tried to keep a travel diary of our trip from New Hampshire to Kansas, but that got boring fast (drive to Kansas yourself and you might understand why). So I started writing fiction. Mostly I wrote adventure stories--just one or two pages long--starring myself and my old friends from New Hampshire, who I missed.

But just lately, I had discovered that my new classmates were great fans of the Encyclopedia Brown stories and a series of books in our library which we referred to as "Minute Mysteries" (although this wasn't quite their correct title). In any case, sensing an audience for solve-it-yourself stories--which I quite liked too--I tried my hand at writing a few during lunch, over recess, and sometimes during class when Mrs. B would give us a chance to do some creative writing. Those first stories were, I'm sure, terribly derivative of the Encyclopedia Brown stories--probably even plagiarized. But what made them special was that I included myself and other kids from our class in the stories. That little hint of verisimilitude made them very popular and in short order, my distinctive little yellow-plaid book regularly made the rounds among the fifth graders. Only a few days earlier, on a rainy day in which we'd been forced to have recess indoors, I had enjoyed the quiet pride that came from watching my classmates jostling for rights to read my stories next as several of them sat on the bleachers in the school gymnasium. To be fair, the older kids had hogged all the basketballs in the gym, so there was a distinct shortage of distractions, but still it had been a fine moment for a young writer, to see his reading public clamoring to sneak a peek at his latest work. My only regret was that I hadn't had the forethought to charge my friends money for reading privileges.

But unbeknownst to me, my work had drawn an unintended audience, which in turn brought in the critics, a moment that any writer should expect, I suppose, but which had caught me completely off guard. In the event, one of the sixth-graders had asked my classmates what they were reading and he got a garbled answer, or one that was beyond his ability to fully grasp. Instead of understanding that a young new talent in the school was writing entertaining mystery tales that included his classmates as characters, this fellow gleaned only that the new kid was making up stuff about other kids in the school. And it must be bad or embarrassing because why else would people be lining up to read it during recess? So this kid passed his intelligence along to his teacher, and that was it. I was officially Over the Line.

When Mr. F relayed the "fact" of my writings to my teacher, it's hard to tell who gaped more--Mrs. B or me. To her credit, Mrs. B--who had read one or two of my stories and liked them (or to be more precise, liked that one of her students was taking an interest in doing something creative) haltingly tried to explain the true nature of my writing to Mr. F, he wouldn't hear it. He demanded the book there and then, assuming I suppose, that he would be able to prove in a trice that I was the malicious nine-year-old libeler he took me to be.

I have to admit, as scared as I was--and I was pretty goddamn scared by this point--some little voice in the back of my head rose up in indignation. Bad enough that I had been falsely accused of writing the grammar school equivalent of tabloid journalism, but I was now being asked to give up a personal possession--a gift from my parents--unfairly.

I hesitated for a long moment, long enough for Mr. F to turn bright red in fury and begin screaming his head off, his spitting lips only an inch from my sweating forehead.

"How DARE you defy me, you little busy-body! You malicious mischief-maker! You had better GIVE me that book. RIGHT. NOW. RIGHT NOW DO YOU HEAR ME?" I swear, he was practically gibbering.

It's actually a good thing Mrs. B was there, not just because I think it was only her presence that kept Mr. F from tearing my limbs from their sockets, but also because she provided a sober, nodding witness later after school when, still shaking and sobbing like a trauma patient, I related the whole awful story to my mother.

Who, when I was finished, instead of drawing me to her breast and stroking my hair and letting me get snot all over her sweater, simply put a steadying hand on my shoulder and said, "All right, pull yourself together."

Sniffling, I looked up into her eyes, and almost instantly, I stopped crying. Not because I saw an impatience and hardness in my mother's gaze that told me my histrionics were no longer going to be tolerated.

No, instead, I saw actual raging fire in her eyes, and understood that very shortly Mr. F was going to find himself in the likely unprecedented position of wishing he'd never been born.

And I thought that was something I rather wanted to see...

Comments:
Sorry that your day has sucked. If it helps any, things haven't been too peachy here either...

You will be writing and/or editing again. Soon. Just keep your head up, and keep moving forward.

(((hugs))) to all at The Mansion!

Thim :)
 
I never cease to be amazed by your stories. You're an engaging and wonderfully talented writer. Take your mother's advice (which was great advice) and don't be too down on yourself. This too shall pass. Wishing you the best of luck!
 
*rubs hands with glee*
 
ooh, can't wait to hear what your mother had to say to Mr. F! Don't leave us hanging for long...

Sorry you're having a bad day, but perhaps it helps to be reminded that a simple posting by you has brightened the day of lots of other people! So thank you!!
 
I've had one or two similar experiences with teachers but was always too afraid to speak up. I can't wait to hear what your mother told him...

Much love,
Flip
 
Wow, what a dick.

This is a really interesting insight into your mom, and you. Thank you for sharing it. I look forward to reading more!
 
MM, you tell stories better than most anything I've ever read.

Thank you and your wonderful parents for the gift you share so often with us here.

We're more than ready to buy that book, now. :)
 
No words of wisdom, but I just wanted you to know my mother's birthday was last week, I can relate a bit.

It's been 3 years for me, but this one was hard for some reason.

I hope things look up for you soon and I'm looking forward to hearing what happened next.
 
MM: I totally feel you. I lost my job in December, and hitting the 3 month mark is having the same toll on me. I've also been freelancing, but it's hard to balance wanting enough freelancing work to pay the bills in the short term with a) needing to take the time to find a FT job; and b) not wanting to have a horrific schedule of obligations when the FT job arises and you've committed to one too many freelance projects.

Also, for what it's worth, I've had an 'almost' offer on the table for over a month but the org. that is looking to hire me has been in a crazy holding pattern on hiring while they figure out the whole org's budget. Maybe the same is true for your potential position?

I really appreciate your writing and hope you find some FT work soon.

JW
 
*evil happy grin* I couldn't stop doing that when I felt the story blazing forward but could see only a few lines left on the page.

Dots. Why does it have to be the dots? I hate 'em but I love me.

sorry 'bout yer day, I for one hope someone is smart enough to pay you for what you do.
It's damn fine reading.

Thank you MM
 
Thanks for telling us a story despite your lousy day. I want to know what happens next! And it's nice to hear about your storied past again.
 
something must be going 'round - my day pretty much sucked too.

thanks for starting a story - i love your stories! it made my day end on a high note.

and happy birthday to your mom - i'm sure she's got heaven whipped into shape by now. :-)
 
I never had any completely unhinged teachers. I think I did come close to unhinging a couple of my prior bosses.

Sorry no news yet but I wouldn't count yourself out. I was supposed to hear "right away" whether I'd been hired at my current job...the actual offer ended up coming about four months later, due to a hiring slowdown.
 
Take your mom's advice, MM, and pull yourself together. Because this, too, shall pass.

I wish my mom was more like yours. I'd be better off for it.

Can't wait to read about what she did to Mr. F!
 
Your Mom was a Tigress of the Highest Order. You are indeed, a lucky man.
 
My brother lost his job several months ago. He's a very smart guy. This economy is scared and contracting and there's no demand out there. It's not fair. I can see the strain on his marriage. Little things blow up big like why he took the 2-year-old to the daycare if he isn't working...

Fear paralyzes you.

I'm seeing signs that things are getting better. Just keep holding on.

I lost my mom 10/4/2005. I miss her advice. I miss her.
 
Sorry it was a crummy day, and I can only imagine what it's like to be missing your mom right now, especially on her birthday.

I'm in agreement with Chuck and Jaime about not giving up hope on that last job offer. Some academic institutions are notorious for moving slowly, and I know that mine, at least, is still hammering out a budget.

Also, I can only speak for myself, but I'd subscribe to your blog. (Just thinking of the twinge of reqret at not having your classmates pay to read your ntoebook.)

And as long as you have some time on your hands, have you considered podcasting? I loved hearing you and Thomas tell the story of the cats driving the train. You write in such a way that I have a sense of your voice, but I'm curious about how closely I've interpreted some comments.

Well, I hope today is a better one for you. It's my big girl's 8th birthday, so special at our house.
 
Sorry you've had a crappy day, MM, but thanks for starting a story that I'm really looking forward to reading (with your stories, there are no other kind). : )
 
Adversity must encourage talent, 'cause you sure have it in spades! Can't wait for the next installment...
 
"And I thought that was something I rather wanted to see..."

Me, too. Looking forward to seeing it, via your words.
 
Nothing meaner than a momma bear being protective of a cub. Cannot wait for the next installment...

Sorry that the academia seems to not be working out. In the interim, have you thought about doing a simple (so to speak) self-published story book (about Blaze, perhaps)? I know Wheaton has self-published some of his books, and has offered the most recent one as a PDF download. I'm sure that most if not all regular visitors here at the Masthead (former masthead?) would gladly pony up for a copy. I'm just sayin'...
 
Sorry to hear that you are so down. I love the stories that you write. Do you still write short stories? I (and it seems others here) would gladly purchase a book that you had written. I have missed your stories.
Hang in there. I'm pulling for you.
J
 
Oh my. Loved your story. A retired teacher, I've seen my share of mean teachers becoming unhinged at innocent kids. (Fortunately, there are almost always many more nurturing teachers, at least in elementary schools.) As the parent of three extremely gifted writers who began writing during their elementary years, I've also seen the violence unleashed upon a kid who writes a description of a petty adult just too well. And yes, this mama bear let those people know that I thought writing was a healthy activity for a kid, and that I was damn proud of their writing skills.
Looking forward to hearing the rest of your story.

AND you are far too intelligent and creative to be without a job for too much longer. Hang in there.
 
All will work itself out, it always does. Keep the faith. Your Mom is still with you, whispering those nuggets of wisdom in your ear.

I cannot wait to hear Mom rip Mr. F a new one! I wonder if his rage wasn't connected to guilt. Sounds like Mr. Freak had a guilty conscience and was afraid your writing was incriminating.
 
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