Tuesday, July 30, 2013

From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come)

True story.  This is a little bit about how I started to become a writer.  A tribute to an inspiring mentor.  And one of (ONE of!) the most embarrassing moments of my life.

The teachers who've helped me shape my skills have always been women.  My Algonquin College professor Christine Klein, who advised me to pursue copywriting.  The woman who hired me at CFRA radio and taught me to be a working professional and a functioning adult, the inimitable Jan Hansen.  But long before them came my seventh-grade homeroom and English teacher, Mrs. Doreen Leslie of St. Peter's Junior High.

I guess it must have been '75, I would have been twelve years old.  Grade 7 was the first year at junior high, a new school for me.  Lots of new kids from different neighbourhoods, not the same ones I'd grown up with.  As you know, at times like these the societal pressures multiply.  Other kids get bigger than you faster.  You get braces.  That sort of thing.  This is that kind of story.

I was a smart kid, and I could be a smart ass at times about it.  I'd sailed through primary school with some of the top marks in the class.  I was a bookworm, could read above my age, and read all kinds of things.  My biggest weapon was my library card.  I was absorbing literature from all sources, and though I had no idea I'd ever try to make a living as a writer, I knew that the English language was already well under my command.  Mrs. Leslie was a prim and gentle lady with a bookish manner and cats-eye spectacles, and she encouraged my efforts in English class, often challenging me to do my very best.

Well, at some point Mrs. Leslie gave us an assignment - a page of descriptive writing, if I recall correctly.  The subject of the piece was to be a person.  Now remember, I said I was twelve years old.  And the only person I had anywhere in my mind at that time was a curly-haired blonde girl in another classroom down the hall.  So yes, I wrote a page of description... of her.  No, it wasn't just a crush letter, it was a good piece of work.  I was a good writer.  I was inspired by my subject.  My ego knew that it was an assignment I could completely dominate.  As Bruce Springsteen later said about writing Darkness On The Edge Of Town, "More than rich, more than famous - I wanted to be great."  I wrote a stunner.

How do I know I wrote a stunner?  Because.  After reading and grading our essays, Mrs. Leslie announced to the class - and I remember she was tickled pink to do so - that one student had written something so excellent, so inspiring, that she simply had to share it with everyone.  And she would proceed to read it out loud to the class.  And she did.

I can't tell you if I cried that day or not.  I couldn't feel my face, I think, it must have been a transcendent shade of red.  I don't think I ever named my subject in the piece, but it didn't matter because it wasn't hard for my classmates to figure out exactly who it was about.  Even worse, as the class erupted in giggles and eventually outright mocking laughter, poor Mrs. Leslie was surprised, then even a little angry about the reaction to my work.  The dear lady had had no idea I'd written it about a real person, much less...

Later, in confidence, she'd explain to me that she really had been thrilled by the work I'd done.  She'd done it simply because it had been that good. 

I guess it had been.

And there have been many times over the years when I've thought of her, and hoped she'd be proud of me.

It would only get worse after that, I guess.  The next year, in response to an assignment to write an original play based on ancient Greek mythology, I wrote a manuscript which included an offstage rape committed by Zeus.  I mean, it was factually correct, right?  In ancient mythology Zeus was often depicted as a rapist.  So was King Arthur's father, Uther Pendragon.  Did I mention that it would have been Grade Eight?  In Catholic junior high? 

That one got me called into the principal's office.

I'm done now.