My Dad has been cleaning out his attic and today brought me a trash bag full of treasures from my early life that my mother had saved over the years. Going through old cards I had given to her was a little window into the person I was when I lived under their roof, most of it sentimental, sensitive, and naïve. I can’t say that today I would choose to be friends with the tightly wound, scared person that some of the writing portrayed, but I would root for her. She tried so, so hard. She wanted only good for people, but she always believed she was absolutely right and that must have been trying for those around her. I live in much grayer space these days.
The rest was a little mix of items that, curated together as they were, presented a picture of me in a certain stretch of time. Music awards from junior high, my ‘pink ladies’ jacket from when I played ‘Marty’ in ‘Grease’, a few pictures of my smile that desperately needed braces, and then got them. There was a little ceramic piece my mother painted of praying hands that she gave me for my First Communion. There were two roses preserved from mineral-rich waters in Karlovy Vary that I brought back for her from Czechoslovakia, and an old health record that came from an ancient printer that detailed the seizure disorders I had as a young child. That same record indicated I displayed excessive anxiety at a doctor’s appointment before I even turned three. So you can’t say my parents weren’t warned.
It was almost a perfectly curated collection of the stuff I now write about, and maybe it was a picture of the person I would later become: anxious, musical, sentimental, spiritual. But one of the things that stuck out in the pile was an award for creative writing that I received as a junior in high school. I remember the day well, and have told the story many times to my children with no idea that the physical award existed anywhere at all.
We were gathered into a lecture hall for an intramural creative writing competition and there was a prompt on the board, covered with a pull-down screen. It was a timed essay contest, so none of us had a head start in thinking about our responses. When they raised the screen, I did my best to answer, but ideas weren’t really coming, and I was feeling the pressure of the clock. As I started a third draft, I was frustrated and snarky. That a creative endeavor would be timed as part of its standard seemed to present a strange juxtaposition and, already weary and questioning of life and structures and high school as so many sixteen year olds are, I decided to write about that subject instead of the prompt in a free form, super dramatic poem.
It started something like:
60 seconds, 60 minutes, 24 hours, 7 days
quick, fit your heart and soul and mind into the container
before time runs out
Ah, teenage drama! But it went on, a scathing rebuke of the very premise of the contest, and I, self-satisfied and smug, brought my poem up, placed it on the desk, and walked out.
Later that day, the three or four winners were announced over the loudspeaker, and I was shocked to hear my name among them. Not one teacher ever discussed the poem with me, and I never heard who the judges were or about their decision-making process, but I carried a few lessons with me from that day that remain and which I have taught my children.
It’s okay to express yourself.
No one sees the world exactly as you do.
You never know who’s listening.
You never know what might happen when you are brave enough to create something new.
I love imagining the committee who decided that my weird poem was worthy of an award even though I broke every rule of the contest. Maybe there was one person there who advocated for my win, ‘Twelve Angry Men’-style, and they won the rest over with compelling arguments. Maybe that person saw my anxiety and sensitivity and figured I needed a win at that time in my life. I’ll never know. The quiet, supportive work of teachers is so often unthanked, and I regret that I didn’t pursue it. But it makes my heart happy that in in this little curated collection, there exists a writing award, and that someone might have seen this part of the picture of me all along.