Fourth grade… a classroom filled with thirty two screaming children… my stomachache worsening with each passing second. For a moment I wondered if I should visit the school nurse, again, for the third time that day. Glancing at the clock on the wall I felt the weakest sense of relief: Only 1 hour left. I can hold it in. And since my childhood anxiety had pretty much given me a stomachache every day (except for weekends – funny how that worked), I’d become an expert at “holding it in” – in more ways than one.
To add fuel to my inexplicable fire of worry, I was blessed with the inability to properly enunciate the letter “R”. These days it’s called de-rhotacization. Back then I called it torture. Like Elmer Fudd, I’d pronounce “very” as “vewy”, “cross” and “cwoss”, “write” as “white”. Not a day went by without one of my precious classmates requesting me to say the word “girl” or “bird”.
“Just say it,” Maria Foglia cried. “Just say it.”
I’d go back to my writing.
“Just say ‘girl’ and I won’t ask you again. Ever. I promise.”
She’d look at the other children who had stopped what they were doing. Like bettors at a prize fight, they were eager to see who’d win the battle: Maria, with her unashamed goading. Or me, with a silence that screamed louder than Maria’s voice ever could.
I searched the room for my teacher, Mrs. Katz. Where’d she go? Didn’t she see I needed my daily rescue? I turned toward the door at the back of the classroom and could see she was busy at the copy machine. Great. Of all the times…
“C’mon, Wob, just say it.” Maria laughed at her own sense of humor. “Say ‘girl’. Just once. Say ‘girl’.”
The reverberation of her voice inside my head caused my brain neurons to fire uncontrollably. This, in turn, brought my stomach discomfort to a level I’d not yet experienced. It’s definitely time for the nurse. As I was about to utter the one syllable that would make Maria disappear until tomorrow, Mrs. Katz appeared from the copy room with a stack of copies in her hand.
“Enough!” she yelled. “Maria, sit!” Maria humpfed and plopped into her chair. The other children followed her lead.
Mrs. Katz slapped the copies against her thigh as she walked to the front of the room. After reaching the blackboard, she turned around slowly and peered at no one in particular. The room was silent.
“I finished reading all of your short stories last night,” she started. “And I wasn’t very impressed.”
There were sighs and moans. The loudest pained expression coming from Maria, as usual.
“Before I hand back your graded stories, there was one I wanted to share with you. Just one story, out of thirty two, that I think each and every one of you should read.”
By that time we were all looking at one another wondering whose story was about to be shared. Mrs. Katz was a stickler. She only offered guidance, never praise. At least not that I could remember. And then it hit me: Jill DeMarco. She was the nicest, smartest and prettiest girl in class. Straight A’s since first grade and actually had a poem published in our town’s local paper. Her blue eyes and perfect smile always lit up the room and I knew from the moment I met her she was going to be a star.
I gazed at Jill as Mrs. Katz began to hand out the copies. She slipped one onto my desk and when I looked down I felt a rush of heat permeate my face. The rush quickly turned to a pulsing and my eyes began to water.
On the top of the sheet of paper it read: “Too Late” by Robert Kaufman. The neurons started to refire.
“I want you to take the next ten minutes to read this story,” Mrs. Katz said, standing once again before the blackboard. “I’d like you to take note of the metaphors he uses – if you remember what a metaphor is; and how he uses words in a way that helps you actually see the people and places within the story. And last but not least, notice how he uses his imagination.” She looked at me, a smile not on her face but in her eyes. “Start reading now.”
I, of course, didn’t have to read it because I wrote it. My job now was to figure out how to handle the backlash of teacher praise; how to ward off the “teacher’s pet” label from Maria and her ilk; how to defend myself when classmates would start calling me “weird” because of the morbid and ghoulish nature of my writing.
As I pondered my self-protecting strategies, I noticed the quiet in the room. There wasn’t any whispering or fighting; no passing of notes or pulling of hair. Everyone was reading, caught up in a story I wrote while in one of my writing “trances” – a period of time during which words flowed onto paper almost as quickly as they appeared in my mind. By the expressions on the faces around me and the unadulterated silence in the room, it was obvious my trance was contagious.
It was at that moment I understood the gift I’d been given and the way in which I’d be able to share it.
I heard some murmurs and other odd sounds as some of the kids finished reading. When I turned to look behind me, I caught Maria staring at me with a combined expression of both amazement and admiration. From that day forward, she never again harassed me about my speech – or anything else for that matter. She left me alone and I figured that was the gift she decided to share with me.
A few days later I started speech class and within a month I was pronouncing the letter “R” exactly as it should sound – which is a good thing, since I have two of them in my name. My story was never published in our local paper nor did it ever make it to the NY Times Best Seller List. But that didn’t matter. It was the story that started my career and brought about the defining moment that let me know who I was and who I was going to be.
Do you have a defining moment – a point in time when you felt something so significant, it changed your life forever?
I’d love to hear about it…