I didn’t know I enjoyed writing until Mr. Holmes told me to write.
I had a diary as a child. I received it as a birthday gift on my 10th birthday, but didn’t start using it until that summer. The diary had a lock and key, which made my thoughts seem more important to me. I even named my journal after a Russian male gymnast, because a trusted friend needs a name, and my journal was the only thing I could trust fully (blame the name selection on the 1996 Olympics).
I didn’t fully immerse myself in writing at the time. I wrote in my journal when I deemed my thoughts too weird to tell my friends. I spent a lot of my childhood feeling weird and out of place and feeling like my thoughts were too obscure or shocking to share with anyone. I had friends, sure, but I wanted to keep them. I figured if I kept my deepest thoughts private, I’d still be able to maintain some kind of social life.
Reading became my escape around the same time I started writing in my diary. I devoured The Baby-Sitters Club series, as well as Sweet Valley High and anything else I could get my hands on at the library without my mother noticing and deeming it inappropriate. At the time, I read book after book while hiding under my bed (so my mother couldn’t scold me for checking out books behind her back) with only a flashlight to illuminate the words. Admittedly, I was envious of all the girls that I read about. At the time I felt hopeless and uncool and all I wanted was to feel accepted. They made growing up (the tween and teen years) seem effortless.
My discomfort with myself got worse. Writing became the thing I did when I felt guilty about doing something or when I needed to vent about an event that occurred that day. Writing creatively didn’t occur to me until I was in Mr. Holmes’ class.
I was in 6th grade at the time, and he was my English teacher. Up until that point, I did well in all of my classes (All A’s. Always on the honor roll). But being in his class and experiencing his teaching style and the way he interacted with us kids, it caused me to invest more of my energy into English than my other classes. We read a lot of passages he printed out for us; at the time it felt very edgy and I wondered if we would get in trouble if we got caught reading these things. There was a thrill to the content and the language used. I was hit with the urge to create content similar to what I was reading, only held back by my insecurities regarding intelligence and command of the English language.
It was a Friday in March of 1998, and Mr. Holmes gave our class an assignment to be turned in on Monday: we were to write a short story, 100 words in length, about anything we wanted.
I spent Friday night ignoring the assignment. I spent the bulk of Saturday ignoring it as well. Sunday was the day of panic, and perhaps the earliest example of my (a) procrastination and (b) ability to work under pressure. We were supposed to go to my neighbor’s birthday party as a family, and my parents made a big deal about me not completing my homework. There was a little yelling, a lot of bullshitting, and maybe a tear or two. We reached a compromise: I could attend the party, as long as I was doing my assignment while at the party.
Fun stuff, right?
What started out as a painful task became much easier and more fun as time went on. I had a spot on my neighbor’s couch, I had a plate of chips and a cup of punch and I was working diligently. Neighbor after neighbor asked me if I wanted to play or participate. I politely declined and continued working on my story. What started as 100 words quickly became 349 words, topping out at 811 by bedtime.
School the next day went on without incident. Social studies was the same as always, math started covering algebraic concepts in preparation for middle school, and science was just… science.
English class caught everyone off-guard. There was no drop box for the homework assignments on Mr. Holmes’ desk. Perplexed, we all took our seats and waited for instruction. Silent for a few moments to gain the classes attention, Mr. Holmes walked to the chalkboard and wrote “It’s time to read your stories aloud.”
This news was met with groans and jeers from the class. Everyone took turns reading their stories in alphabetical order. Having a last name that begins with the letter “Y” is perfect for provoking anxiety in a student. With each person that read, my heart raced faster.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, it was my turn to read. I stood up, smoothed out my story (as I had been clenching it in my hand due to nerves) and proceeded to read. My story was an amalgomation of everything I had read up until that point. My characters were everything I considered cool at the time: they all had the diverse backstories of the girls in The Baby-Sitters Club coupled with the adventurous lives of the girls in Sweet Valley High. I read until the bell rang, and was allowed to finish reading the next day.
Mr. Holmes pulled me aside after class the following day. I was nervous, as I knowingly ignored the assignment’s guidelines. Instead of marking my story negatively, he handed me brochures to writing programs in the area. He insisted that I untapped something big within myself, and that I needed to explore it and cultivate it. “You have a lot of imagination,” he said, “and you can turn it into something that people will want to read.”
As I continued to write, it occurred to me that Mr. Holmes may have been on to something. While my parents didn’t send me to any of the camps or writing groups Mr. Holmes suggested (it was a logistical issue), I took it upon myself to learn more, to expand my vocabulary, and to continue reading from different authors to get exposed to various writing styles. I would later go on to write for my high school’s newspaper and literary magazine, eventually taking editor positions with both. My writing has shifted over the years, from short story to poetry. Lately, I’ve been writing personal essays, and I’ve enjoyed it thus far.
What Mr. Holmes told me after class that day was one of the first times I had been told I was capable of something big. I held on to his words for awhile and kept them a secret, only to be shared with my diary.
Tonight’s song is “I Thank You” by Sam & Dave. When you remove the romantic connotations, the song is about recognizing when someone is there for you and thanking them. It’s incredibly applicable. He didn’t have to pull me aside and talk to me after class. He didn’t have to tell me about those writing programs. Hell, he didn’t even have to let me finish my story the next day. The point is, he did all of it and more and for that, I’m eternally grateful.