“What is a teacher? I’ll tell you: it isn’t someone who teaches something, but someone who inspires the student to give of her best in order to discover what she already knows.” -Paulo Coelho
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” -Albert Einstein
I sat perfectly still in my seat at the back of the classroom, listening carefully as our teacher, Mr. O’Donnell, gave us our assignment: write a one-page essay explaining what you would do with only one day left to live.
There, at my desk in the far back corner, next to the little sink & the pencil sharpener, in front of the poster of Prince & the Revolution, I tried to contain my giddiness. Sure, I had written boring essays for school before. I had written some stories, too… but no one had ever seen any of those.
“That’s not all,” Mr. O’Donnell said from the front of the room. “After everyone’s handed in their paper, you’ll come up here & read your story to the class.”
That last bit reigned my giddiness in pretty quick, but I was still excited.
I went home & wrote all about what I would do with my last day on the planet, where I would go & who I would spend it with.
A few days later, I sat in my little desk as my fellow 6th graders approached the front of the room & read their stories, one by one. Some of them were sad. Others were boring. But, when one kid read his hilarious account of trying to commit suicide with a butter knife, I began to feel a little intimidated & a little bummed out that I wasn’t funny.
Then… it was my turn. I stood in front of everyone & told them how I would fly to Venice, Italy & float alone on a Gondola, reflecting on my life while taking in every detail of the city. To my surprise, Mr. O’Donnell stopped me every so often, saying things like, “Wow! What a great line!”, or “Nice phrase! Sorry, sorry… go on.”
Later, when Mr. O’Donnell returned my essay to me with the big red “A” scribbled across the top, he leaned down on my little desk, looked me right in the eye & said, “You really should think about being a writer, you know.”
Well… I did know, but until that moment, didn’t have anyone else who knew. I had asked my mother a few months before if I could take a writing class at a local learning center, but was told that it would be a waste of money, as I had no special writing ability.
A couple of months later, it was time for 6th grade graduation, with the big award ceremony in the tiny gymnasium/cafeteria. I expected nothing as I watched the other kids walking up to meet Mr. O’Donnell as he handed them certificates for perfect attendance & good grades. I got sick a few times. My grades were average. I was just waiting for it to be over.
I was caught completely by surprise when I was called up to accept an award. I felt special when, from his place at the podium, Mr. O’Donnell said that I was the only person to receive it. He handed me the certificate with the little blue ribbon stapled to it. I looked down & read it: demonstrated writing ability.
The years rolled on. Somehow, I went from being that dorky 11 year-old kid & became a juvenile delinquent, writing bad poetry, smoking pot & reading Kerouac, taking LSD & listening to The Doors in between arrests & trips to jail or rehab. From time to time, I’d take out that yellow paper with the blue ribbon stapled to it. Things were bad, but I was going to be a writer.
Luckily, that was a phase – aside from the Kerouac & The Doors, of course, because they are permanently with me. As I became a mess of an angry, blue collar 20-something, I was writing. Insecure about it, to be sure, but I was writing. Was any of it good? Not really. At least, not by my current standards. But, the desire – the need – to write was still there. And I still had this piece of paper reminding me that I could.
There were long periods when I wrote nothing. Eventually, I would open a drawer & looking up at me, reminding me that I should have been writing something – anything – was that yellow paper. Echoing in my head, faintly, I would hear Mr. O’Donnell’s voice telling me again, “You really should think about being a writer, you know.”
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a couple of months, now & just hadn’t gotten around to it for one reason or another. However, now turned out to be the perfect time. I’ve had a couple of small publishing successes recently. One of my stories is scheduled for publication in the latest issue of the literary journal, The Legendary. Another one is scheduled for publication in Big Pulp in November.
Artistic validation is valuable. It’s satisfying & is an excellent excuse to drink a lot of champagne. Having someone read your words is even more valuable, more satisfying & is an even better excuse to drink champagne.
But… sitting here at the desk in my writing space, next to me is this piece of yellow paper that has lived among my most prized possessions for the last 25 years. The blue ribbon is still stapled to it. The ink has faded slightly & maybe the paper has gotten a little more yellow than it once was.
It still has just as much power as it did when Mr. O’Donnell handed it to that skinny little kid in the gymnasium. No… that’s not true. Its power has definitely grown. This piece of paper helped to keep me writing & provided me with tangible proof that someone believed in my ability to do something. All it took was for one person to believe in me. Later, I eventually believed in myself. Ok, it was a long while later because I’m fucking slow. Shut up.
Regardless of how much – or how little – success I have as a writer, it doesn’t matter. Well, it does… but only to a certain point. Nothing I get from writing is going to be any cooler than this yellow piece of paper.
But, the more excuses to drink champagne I have, the better.