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I didn't always used to like to write. I used to find writing a terrible chore in elementary school. In fact, most of the “language arts” were a pain in my butt. Phonics, grammar, spelling, penmanship, and composition all bored me stupid. The only element of the whole subject of “English” for which I had any use was reading. Phonics was too easy, grammar too repetitive, spelling was okay, but not exciting, penmanship was a great failing for me, and composition or “creative” writing was frequently anything but. Many of my teachers had taken to heart some educational trend of the time and had composed little recipe boxes of file cards with prompts which were doled out as weekly writing themes. Sometimes it would be a word like “bumblebee,” other times it would be a question like, “Why do stars twinkle,” and sometimes it would be the start of a sentence, “When I walk into a room…” I'd immediately lock up with writers block when presented with these open-ended, uninspiring inspirations. I produced one writing assignment in the 4th grade that I was proud of; a travelogue-style writeup of a very pleasant field trip we’d just been on.

Then, in the 5th grade, tragedy struck. First things first, we had a teacher who was very sincerely in the wrong profession. She could NOT manage children in any way. She was edgy and high-strung, and the antics of our class, especially the boys, were too much for her. She was thrown to the wolves (or rather a room full of kids ranging from 5th grade to 8th grade, or something like ages 10 to 14) and was ill-equipped to cope. As the teacher slid nearer and nearer to a nervous breakdown, the classroom chaos increased, and amidst the disorder, my already-present tendency to be a lazy bum and avoid assignments I didn't like reared its ugly head, and I stopped turning in my math and creative writing altogether. I’d spend the day reading my history and science books, or concealing a library book between the covers of a larger schoolbook. Or I might draw or work on writing one of my own stories. For as much as I hated writing assignments, I was fond of writing down stories, and my best friend and I had two different fan-fic projects going on at the time. (We didn't know it was fan-fic, but it really was; we thought we were writing new scripts for our favorite shows and had every intention of submitting them to Hollywood!)

Of course, not doing your schoolwork will catch up to you at some point in time, as it did catch up to me. The turning point came on a day when the County Superintendent of Schools came around to Cottonwood to do her quarterly evaluation. We were all dead scared of Mrs. Holst. She was an elderly lady with jet black hair, a grim mouth, and elegant gold-rimmed glasses. She would come to do her observations and set up shop in the back of the schoolroom behind the rows of our desks, and spread notebooks, binders, and manuals out from her capacious burgundy briefcase. We'd feel her impressive presence looming over us all; it was the sensation of being scrutinized by a bird of prey. Resisting the urge to crane back in our seats and peek at Mrs. Holst, we'd typically be at the peak of our best behavior when she'd pay her visits.

Not so, on that fateful day of Mrs. Holst's visit. She came in early December, a fact I remember because the fallout of this particular visit affected my holiday break that year. She set up shop, as was her custom, in the back of the schoolroom, and the day progressed apace. The boys were at their absolute naughtiest, launching spitwads (chewed-up paper bullets) through disemboweled ink pens. The girls made faces and whispered taunts to egg the boys on. All of us giggled, fidgeted, and slumped disreputably in our seats. Notes were passed, gestures were brandished, and chaos was had by all. Mrs. Holst took note of it all, writing down names, highlighting the most egregious errors in behavior. I was called to Spelling, and I chucked whatever schoolbook I'd been shamming to study into my desk and banged the lid down. I sauntered to the board and proceeded to deliberately spell each word humorously incorrectly. It was at this juncture when Mrs. Holst snapped. She called me away from the board, took the spelling list away from the teacher, and ordered me to write each word 50 times, and to do it correctly.

I felt a blade of cold steel enter my soul. Oooooh, sheeeit, I was in for it now. I actually got called onto the carpet by the County Superintendent. I was dead meat.

A few days later, the school board held an emergency session to discuss the troubling reports they'd gotten from the Superintendent. My dad was on the Board and my mom went to every meeting. Many parents were on the Board or went to the meetings, and usually we kids liked Board Meeting nights, as we could play on the playground equipment as much as we liked, or hang around in the school library listening to records, reading the National Geographics, and eating leftovers out of our lunch boxes. That night, though, a heavy blanket of foreboding muffled our usual revelries. We all knew we were in deep hot water.

That night, my parents called me to the dining table and asked for my report of what went on the day of Mrs. Holst's visit. Trapped like a pig in a chute, I squealed. I admitted my own transgressions haltingly but accurately, and described the roiling welter of disorder that characterized that hideous school-day. My parents had a photocopy of the teacher's gradebook page for me, showing all of the gaps in my work and the dismal grades resulting from my negligence. I was informed that I'd been granted the chance to make up my backlog of work over the Christmas holiday and get full credit for it.

I didn't think it was possible to feel any worse than I'd been feeling, what with the guilty conscience and sense of impending doom, but suddenly I was feeling it. The prospect of Christmas Break being tainted with daily doses of my least favorite schoolwork was just too dire to believe.

As it turned out, it wasn't so bad after all. I spent a whole day banging the math out of the way, and if large swaths of it were incorrect, it was no worse than my usual performance in the subject, so nobody could accuse me of slopping through it. Then I began to tackle the daunting list of incomplete writing themes. I cannot remember the lot of them, but I do remember a few of the ones I was happiest with. One was a four-panel comic strip about a cat who took a dose of hot-pepper sauce and trashed the house. Another was my trippy notion about what a summer flower bed would sound like if it turned into an orchestra (note: hollyhocks sound like trumpets, sunflowers are tubas, and dark-purple pansies are like timpani). The crown jewel of my under-fire creative output, however, was a short story about horses. I was not an especially horsy girl, but I had read many of the horse stories that are marketed to girls of that age because they were out there, and I was nothing if not an enthusiastic, indiscriminate reader. I'd also sneaked looks into my mom's friend Lee-Anne's romance novels, and noted that there were disturbing similarities between the descriptions of rippling muscles between a stallion or a hero. The purple prose, from horse-story to bodice-ripper was nearly indistinguishable. So I set out to write the most muscle-bound, sweat-soaked, pounding-across-the-prairie horse story I could contrive. I am happy to say, all of these years later, that I got an A on that little composition.

It wasn't until I learned how to make fun of an assignment that I learned to get any fun out of the execution thereof. In the years to come, most of my best-received essays (and the ones I enjoyed writing the most) were ones where I was more or less thumbing my nose at the theme. One of my favorites in highschool was a description of one of those super-earnest-slightly-smelly-over-the-top-naive-hippie-kids of the sort we might call Granola these days. I illustrated it, with a doodle of a wide-eyed, lank-haired, patched-clothed, peace-sign-wearing neo-hippie. Sure, there was a little more than a hint of self mockery, but I laid into the whole thing in the style of a nature documentary, describing habitat, habits, distinguishing coat markings, and so on.

Basically, once I learned that I could get away with being a smartass on paper, a whole new world opened up to me, and I enjoyed the challenge of walking the line between being too rude and mean, and being mealy-mouthed and boring.

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