I was asked that the other day by one of my scholars, bless her inquisitive little heart, and it was among the easiest questions I’ve ever been asked by a student.
Because, you see… well, always.
Ever since I learned to write, anyway… printing first, of course, and then, in grade three, initiated into the Deeper Mystery of cursive handwriting --- which in a few more years will, I think, serve us old farts as an unbreakable code immune to the prying eyes of younger generations, because none of them can decipher its graceful curlicues and swoopings. And then, of course, along came… the computer.
I spent an entertaining hour viewing my archives while prepping this, because apparently, I’ve saved --- through initial packrat-itis, then sheer inertia --- much of my writing from distant adolescence… and even before. (Note to self: really, really need to cull it before departing this mortal plane --- which I ardently hope isn’t soon. But some of the archive is way beyond embarrassing --- journals written in high school, for example --- and I’d like to know precisely who the hell wrote them, because it sure can’t have been me. Can it? No, no. Must have been an evil doppelganger. It brings to mind Morgan Freeman from Shawshank Redemption, calmly intoning, “I want to talk to him. I want to try to talk some sense to him, tell him the way things are. But I can’t. That kid’s long gone, and this old man is all that’s left.” Yikes, getting morbid. Let’s get back on topic.)
So. Archives. Yes. I found just the thing: a piece from grade four that I have clear memories of, for two important reasons. My teacher, the redoubtable Mrs. Mitchell, whom I fondly remember (depending on her mood) as a cross between Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall and Julie Walters’ Molly Weasley, gave us what, nowadays, we call a writing prompt: “I used to be the handsomest book in the library, but look at me now!”
Hmm. Not bad, Mrs. M, not bad at all. Books, libraries… great topics and a command dealing with time’s inexorable passage. What to write? Well, the clear implication was that the book in question had fallen afoul of ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,’ as Will says. But that seemed a little too obvious, so I cast about for a slightly different angle.
Eventually I turned it ‘round by crafting a very simple tale --- this was grade four, after all --- that made the book a document of great historical importance: the diary of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald. So yeah, the book had seen better days, but avoided that culling I ominously mentioned several paragraphs back, the one that may be the fate of my journals one day. I threw in a little history about Sir John’s life and untimely passing --- didn’t know about his prodigious drinking problem or role in Canada’s residential schools disaster, so didn’t mention either one. It was just a little innocent, youthful patriotism, and I recall feeling it went down on the page rather well, all things considered. Like a fine… well, not a fine wine, not at that age, but a fine… root beer. Just not as fizzy.
Apparently, Mrs. Mitchell thought so, too. She gave it an ‘H’ which, for some unfathomable reason in the Dark Ages of my education, was a mark even higher than an ‘A.’ The coveted ‘H’ was almost never given out… but I got one. Yep. Sure did. That’s the first reason it sticks out in memory, all these years --- hell, decades --- later.
The second reason has to do with what she did with my writing. No, I didn’t get a lucrative publishing contract; even Mrs. Mitchell’s near-godlike powers did not, it seemed, extend quite that far. But I got something just as good to a ten-year-old wannabe writer: publicity.
We had a full-school assembly, grades one through six, every… hmm, was it Wednesday or Friday? I think it was Fridays, but am prepared to admit there may be one or two details of my long-lost childhood that have vanished into the mists of time. Anyway. 400-500 kids, plus teachers. All in the gym for half an hour of stuff ranging from religion (everyone said the Lord’s Prayer), politics (everyone saluted the Canadian flag and said --- I swear these were the exact words --- “I salute the flag, the emblem of my country. To her I pledge my love and loyalty”), and entertainment… classes singing songs, dramatic presentations etc. You get the drift. Why do this? I suspect it was nothing more complicated than group socialization --- How To Properly Behave In Public Gatherings. Perish the thought we should try to do that with kids nowadays. Oh, I’m sorry… was that my outside voice?
Anyway. Mrs. Mitchell, God bless her, evidently thought my little epistle worthy of presentation at an assembly. And I was to present it. Little ol’ grade four me. Now, looking back all these years later, the curious thing is I wasn’t terrified. But nope --- standing before that vast sea of freshly scrubbed faces, some younger, some older --- not even a teensy bit. I don’t know why. The reaction I did feel was more akin to Tom Hanks in Castaway when he shouts exultantly, triumphantly, to the darkened heavens, “I… have… made… FIRE!” Yeah. I didn’t need Dumbo’s magic feather: I had my words. My words, people! Hear them! I am Ozymandias, king of kings! Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!
Well, okay, maybe not quite that. I was many things as a child, but honestly don’t think megalomania was in there. But all writers want an audience. Even a captive one.
So, as Southey said in his epic poem Battle of Blenheim, ‘twas a famous victory.
Yeah. *Starry-eyed sigh.* My first public reading.
I was on my way.