We learn many lessons in our high school years, some academic and intended, many social and unintended, and others life lessons that we carry with us well beyond those years of cliques and clubs and standardized tests.
I’m going to dig deep into the annals of high school for this post, so bear with me.
When I was a senior in high school, I was in an honors English class taught by an amazing man who could – literally – speak Old English. He could read Beowulf aloud in the original text. Seriously. But that’s beside the point.
Our class was given an assignment: write the beginning of a frame story introducing five unrelated characters and put them in a unique situation in which they all must come together, alá Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
I worked my butt off. I spent every minute of my free time on the assignment. I had written stories my whole life – kept them in secret notebooks tucked away in the bottom drawer of the desk in my bedroom and never shared them with a single soul because I thought creative writing was, well, somehow embarrassing.
So this was just the kind of writing assignment that I lived for. Had been waiting for.
And damn, was it good.
The night before the assignment was due, I was at a friend’s house, where there was a gathering of students from the English class. Everyone traded papers and read each other’s stories. One student – I’ll call him Roger (although his name was really Jeremy) – read my story and turned to me with a smirk on his face and said, “This isn’t what Dr. Brown wants at all.”
I was crushed. I had worked so hard; had perfected every word, every phrase, every sentence. It was, I thought, the best thing I had ever written. And it was too late to do anything about it. It was nine o’clock the night before the story was due.
I drove home that night in tears.
The next day, I turned in the paper, knowing it was a complete failure, knowing, as Roger had said, that it wasn’t what the teacher wanted at all. Knowing my work — my very finest work — just wasn’t good enough.
A week later, Dr. Brown had the papers graded and began returning them. I was a bundle of nerves. I was terrified that I had failed. I watched as the students around me received their papers, talking to each other and sharing their grades. But no paper appeared on my desk. Imagine that – everyone has a paper, everyone is chatting about their grades – and I had nothing. Nothing but an empty desk and a desolate feeling in my gut. Kids started asking me, “Where is your paper?” and I realized that my paper was so bad, so supremely awful, that it wasn’t even worth grading; Dr. Brown had kept it to perhaps speak with me after class about its worthlessness.
And then Dr. Brown addressed the class. He stood in front of his desk as he always did, holding a paper in his hands. He said, “Students. Someone in this class will be a professional writer one day.” And then he looked at me over the rim of his tortoiseshell glasses.
“Kate,” he said, “Will you read your story to the class?”
The lesson, of course, is not to listen to the Rogers in life.
It has been twenty-seven years since that moment, but it still holds great meaning for me. It is still a lesson I draw on as I write today. And last summer I was reminded again of the Rogers in the world.
My historical fiction short story “Brigida” won first prize in Spider Road Press’s 2015 Spider’s Web Flash Fiction Contest and the story will be published in their 2016 anthology Approaching Footsteps later this year.
Which is great news. And which may or may not qualify me as a “professional writer” as Dr. Brown said. But it’s not the end of the tale.
When I first learned of the Spider’s Web contest, I stood, hands on my hips, staring at my computer screen – and laughing. “Seven hundred and fifty words?!” I shouted, spooking the cats, who ran off in three different directions.
You see, I consider myself a novelist, and had just completed a 92,000-word project. I never thought I could conquer flash fiction. I thought 750 words was an impossibility. “There’s no way I can create complex characters and a rich plot in 750 words,” I said – loudly — to the computer. Seven hundred and fifty words is half a chapter. A quarter of a chapter.
“It can’t be done,” I thought.
So there are Rogers lurking inside us, too.
And those are the Rogers that must be silenced most of all.