I was a misfit sort of kid, with exactly the combination of academic precociousness and social naivete that guaranteed no seat ever at the popular kids’ table, and there was a point in first grade when I got beaten up by a gang of third-graders every day at recess.
“Every day” may be an exaggeration. There were the days I was able to beg off school, claiming a stomachache, and the days I successfully hid in a bathroom stall or the janitor’s closet or made it out early and ducked into the woods. But pretty much, my routine was the same: run, get cornered, get kicked to the curb.
Did I deserve it? Possibly. What I remember most vividly from first grade, besides the recess torment, was my discovery of boredom. I remember sitting in a metal-legged chair, listening to the teacher drone on about sets and subsets and feeling overcome with a horror of the void: Do I actually have to sit here and do this? Every day? For the next twelve years?
It didn’t help that I’d come from a private kindergarten that had covered pretty much the same ground my first-grade teacher was now trying to impart to a much larger class. I had no desire to become hooked on phonics, saw no point in “reading readiness” drills. I knew how to read, and I did so constantly, hungrily, near obsessively. I was the insufferable know-it-all who stood up at my kindergarten graduation to explain the difference between alligators and crocodiles. But I just couldn’t get excited about seeing Spot run, particularly when he’d done the same exact running in last year’s textbook and still hadn’t gotten anywhere.
So I found ways to amuse myself, many of which resulted in trips to the principal’s office. Today, I probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD and given whatever brain-altering chemicals were likely to make me sit still longest. But it was a more innocent time, and kids diagnosed as “hyperactive,” when they were diagnosed, were simply told to lay off the red M & Ms.
I spent a lot of time in my principal’s office that year. I didn’t mind. He wasn’t a bad guy, as I recall, and we must have had some interesting conversations, or negotiations, because a friend’s mother liked to tell the story of how she saw me alone on the swing set after the recess bell had rung, and when she asked why I wasn’t back in class, I explained that the principal had given me a two-minute exception.
But if the principal gave me an exception, those third-graders didn’t. I’d discovered that one of the cures for boredom was to balance your chair on its back legs and rock it back and forth, hitting the desk behind you. While this may have passed the time for me, it annoyed the hell out of the girl behind me. “Quit it!” she hissed, and when I didn’t quit it, she pushed her desk forward, wedging me in. We waged a quiet little war for a few days, her pushing forward, me leaning back, and then she called in the big guns: her third-grade sister and her two friends.
Somehow, I survived the third-grade death squad. I even survived first grade. I found a cure for boredom that was better than rocking or humming or mutilating erasers. I started sneaking books into school, hiding books I actually wanted to read behind the tame covers of textbooks. That had its own risks—being called on among them—but it gave me the framework for a dream-world I could escape to when the real world was too much for me, or too little. Reading led to writing, mostly stories that could be generously called homage, or, less generously, blatant imitation. I’d already been making up stories in my head for a long time, but when I told those stories—about my pet dinosaur or my invisible baby brother—I was called a liar, not a writer. Putting the lies on paper made them real. It made them better than real: it made them last.
And, for the most part, it kept me out of the principal’s office and off the third-grade hit list.
My own third-grade teacher (thank you, Miss Eagan) was the first person who made me think my writing could be something more than a solitary vice. She was an old-school teacher, with iron-gray hair and a border collie’s eye for misbehavior, not one for easy As, so when she singled out my stories and asked me to read them out loud in front of our class and the younger grades, I knew it was an honor, although a slightly terrifying one. It was like being given permission to lie, as long as the lies were interesting.
Still, none of this felt like it had any connection to my future until one night at the mall. I was probably ten or eleven, and my mom was taking me to my favorite place, the bookstore. As we walked in, I saw a multiplicity of Charlie Browns. It was a Peanuts anniversary edition, stacked up on display, Charlie after Charlie. Now, some of the first books I remember buying with my own allowance were Peanuts paperbacks; I collected every one I could find, even the really early ones where Snoopy didn’t talk and all the kids had gigantic heads, so it wouldn’t be surprising that I’d be interested, or nostalgic, but what I felt was something more powerful: an unfamiliar but completely certain identification with Charles Schulz as a writer. It was as if, for the first time, I’d put it all together. Books didn’t just magically exist. They came from writers, who were real people, who did exactly what I did, and that meant that I could be a writer. Not just a freak or a geek or, in the words of a teacher less encouraging than Miss Eagan, “Waaaay up there in the clouds.” I could be—I was—a writer.
“Someday my books will be up there,” I told my mother.
I didn’t feel like bragging, and I wasn’t lusting after fame. It felt like being lost for a long time, and suddenly seeing a familiar landmark and realizing that you do, after all, know the way home.
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