Friday, January 29, 2010

A win, win: more creative nonfiction

This is the creative nonfiction essay that I referenced in How To Dance the Tarantella:

A win, win

Sugar and spice

Mrs. Zane has placed Wendy Michaels in the desk that is in the exact center of her first grade classroom. There are nineteen other students whose desks surround her like a halo. For the most part all the desks face the front of the room where Mrs. Zane is standing at the chalkboard, writing things first grade teachers write on chalkboards. She asks the class for answers and her voice twangs and scratches like a smoking fiddle. In a sea of small hands, one stands out unmistakably—the hand of Wendy Michaels. Wendy is sparingly freckled, as if someone has sprinkled cinnamon on her face only in the cutest places: nose and cheeks, with honey hair swinging at a sweet length just above her shoulders and wide blue eyes level at just the right height for a six-year-old girl. Yes. Just right. Wendy Michaels is the brilliance shinning right in the middle of Mrs. Zane’s classroom.

Somewhere off to the right sits another first grader. A little girl who knows that she is a little too tall for age six, and that her hair will never swing except under great duress. This little girl, the one off to the right, does not raise her hand even when she knows the answer. She is convinced that if she is finally called on, her answer will be wrong. Then, Mrs. Zane will turn her wildish grey loud-haired head to Wendy Michaels, who will give the correct answer. I bet nobody would have thought that an elementary school class could have an “it” girl, but mine did. In fourth grade, it was Anna Ryder; in third grade, our class somehow got overlooked; in second grade, it was Jane Shelton; in first grade it was Wendy Michaels. Wendy was probably the nicest and most likeable of the three, which makes me feel even worse for what I did to her one day after music class. Mrs. Zane must have been extra oblivious to the fact that there were other students in her classroom that day. I was past sulking in the playhouse loft during reading time; I was as fed up as the old gum I had been chomping on all morning. As we lined up to go back to Mrs. Zane’s room, I was standing behind Wendy and for one moment, just long enough, I am ashamed to say that I think I hated her. Without her doing anything but showing up, without her even having to try, it was obvious that everyone liked her, especially Mrs. Zane. I took the gum out of my mouth, then and cautiously pressed it into a few of Wendy’s swinging locks of hair. Of course, when the gum was discovered, Wendy was near to tears and Mrs. Zane was horrified.

“How did it get there…who would do such a thing?” Mrs. Zane was loudly drawling more hoarsely than ever, fluttering and worrying herself over the gummed-up hair like a large mother bird. A lot of the class was crowded around the mother bird, anxious to see her poor sticky-haired fledgling. I just sat there watching from somewhere off to the right, at a safe distance.

Leila Huddle sat across from me. She was not an “it” girl and the girls in our class weren’t exactly tripping over each other to be her best friend, but I wanted to be Leila’s best friend. I was doing pretty well, or so I thought, at becoming Leila’s best friend. We were inseparable at school, we played together and had sleepovers on the weekends, she had written a little book and I had illustrated it. We went to the zoo together; we celebrated birthdays together. Sixteen years later I made her cheeks turn red by telling her boyfriend about how we had even taken baths together then. What I didn’t know was that Leila already had the makings of a true best friend in the boyishly wild, superbly funny Elle Wang. Elle went to one of the other elementary schools in town. Years later, Elle was the one Leila would talk to about how she was always sad and how she couldn’t sleep. Elle Wang would be the one standing by her side while Leila watched her daddy die. At this time, I would feel like a fake when I tried to be part of her life again. I would feel helpless because I could not comfort her. Not like Elle—in the way only a best friend can.

Wendy Michaels’ birthday is in October. After surviving the gum incident, she still had plenty of hair left to continue being the “it” girl in Mrs. Zane’s class, which meant that all the girls wanted to be invited to Wendy’s birthday party. My insides were turning the day she handed out those invitations. No one knew that I had put the gum in her hair, but I am afraid that somehow she knew. I am afraid that Leila will be invited and I will not. I’m now afraid that someone will recognize this story, regardless of the fact that I have changed people’s names, and will try to sue me for whatever people sue for. When Wendy finally got to me she held out her hand and in her brilliant little hand was the best gift she could have given me. It was an invitation with my name on it. My invitation to Wendy Michael’s sleepover, where I will feel guilty because we watched Hocus Pocus and my parents didn’t allow me to watch such movies then; we will play games, we will eat junk food and I will wake up in the middle of Wendy Michaels’ living room with my sleeping bag right next to hers.

Turkish Delight

My fourth grade class has three reading levels. Let’s call them, Easy Peasy, Not Quite, and Brilliant Fun. The slow learning and apathetic inhabit level Easy Peasy. The naturally average and smart kids who don’t try are in level Not Quite. The genius students, who are already bound for the Ivy Leagues are in level Brilliant Fun. I am not particularly fond of reading, so I am in level Not Quite, where we are reading a book about a porcupine who makes waves among his fellow porcupines by walking upright. One of our new vocabulary words from this book is committee. During reading group time, we talk about the committee in this book about the talking, upright-walking, wave-making porcupine—committee. And we spell it. C-O-M-M-I-T-T-E-E. I do not want to know what they do in level Easy Peasy.

All four members of level Brilliant Fun are reading The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. I have no idea what they talk about during reading group time because I am not brilliant. They do always seem to be laughing, though, about the things only brilliant people think are funny. The brilliant people have all the fun. One day during reading group time, all of us at the level Not Quite table look up as Brilliant Fun erupts in a small puff of excitement. Later, we find out that they will actually get to make Turkish delight. I have no idea what that is, but in Not Quite we never make anything. When I develop a healthy appetite for reading, I will receive the whole Narnia series for Christmas. I will read them and find out that Turkish delight is some tasty treat that the character Edmund cannot get enough of. On the day they make the Turkish Delight, I can hear their laughter from down the hall. I can smell the stuff baking in the community kitchen. I imagine our teacher, Mrs. Taylor, dressed in furs like the White witch, serving Turkish delight to the four children.

I am not a particularly sulky kid and I’ve never actually gotten in trouble in school. Well, once in kindergarten, though that wasn’t my fault and once in third grade when I ended up not really being in trouble, though I’d already gone through the terrifying experience of being punished. In fourth grade, I did have to “flip my card” once for not participating in the committee I had been assigned to within my reading group. I had decided not to take part because nobody wanted to hear what I had to say. My committee, apart from my friends within the group, was only interested in making “it” girl, Anna Ryder the leader and dictator of the group. So the White Witch sent my friends and I to flip our cards and put our heads down at our desks for retreating under a table to sulk about our misfortunes. Then, during recess, our fur-clad teacher forbade my friends and I to play together! Well, she did separate us to prevent us from having our own private pity party on the monkey bars. Getting in trouble still wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been if my friends hadn’t been right there with me.


I promise that I wasn’t one of those kids that cried over spilled Nestle Quik, but I think I had plenty to cry about one afternoon at camp. All the fourth grade classes got to go to 4-H camp. My mom was one of the moms who came along as a chaperone. This didn’t bother me. I had three friends I hung out with at camp and the four of us were busy enough that I didn’t see my mom too much. Four is the best number because nobody gets left out. No one can be a tag-along, unless, of course, the activity involves a three-kid canoe team. Our group of four was standing ready, armed with life jackets and oars, but we knew we would have to be broken up so that a group of two kids could have a third kid. No one volunteered, of course, so the activity counselor picked me out of the four to complete the other group. I went over to the group of two girls, my heart sinking with every step, wondering why she had to choose me. I might have overcome this experience had I not been placed in a group that simply could not get it together. I should have known things wouldn’t get any better when we had almost flipped over just trying to get into the boat. I watched, floating near the dock, as all the others rowed out on to the lake farther and farther away. No matter how we tried or were coached by the activity counselor, we never got even two feet from the dock before the counselor finally put me out of my misery and told us to come back in. The counselor made a point of apologizing to me personally, because she probably felt bad about how things had turned out for me as result of her executive decision. I couldn’t feel any better though; I couldn’t help it, I cried. Not because I hadn’t gotten to be with my friends or because I didn’t get to row out like all the others, but deep down I think I felt that a great wrong had been done to me. My mom was not happy, but neither was she the type to yell and stir things up. She just cheered and watched the next day, as I made it all the way to the top of the rock wall on the hardest skill level.

My heart is still unsettled as I watch this little girl in my memory as if it were happening now but there is still nothing I can do about it. I’m not sure why it still upsets me so much, even right this moment, though it has been twelve years since that day at camp. I am forced to think about why I need to tell these stories and why I may always remember them a certain way. I can’t fully explain it, but I know it has to do with why I cried that day. Some part of me is certain I stood out to that counselor from my three friends because I was the only dark-skinned one. It would be difficult to say she did not simply play the matching game by placing me in a group with two other black girls. I cannot shake that same feeling like a ball of terror and frustration rising up from the pit of my stomach. I still feel it when I remember some of these things or now when I feel as though I’ve been dismissed as person, or assumed guilty without a trial. I suppose I assume that everyone at first glance is quite ready to think the very least of me. Ridiculous. But it makes me feel as though I will never measure up. No matter how hard I try, I will always feel the need to prove myself—to everyone.

Striving to always give the right answer or be the best friend, I find I’m still failing at that—being the best. I know I don’t have to; that I can’t. I don’t know that it isn’t necessary to over amplify myself so that I am not dismissed. So that I can be heard saying, don’t put me in a box! I will not be a victim of typecasting in my own life. I behave as if I need people and papers telling me that I am smart or good at something in order to believe it. It is as if I cannot unlearn the idea that the number of friends I have or the grade I get on a test somehow corresponds to my worth as person. There are some things I know now that help me to get past that same awful feeling that comes with some memories. People are for the most part as oblivious of me as I am of them, everyone tends to have their favorites, it takes work to be a good friend, and I myself am just as capable of dismissing people as everyone else is of dismissing me.

The Rainbow Fish

My second grade teacher read a book to our class about a fish born with brilliant, shining, colorful scales. This fish stood out from all the others around her. In the story, the fish gives away all her beautiful scales to the other fish, one by one so that they can have a bit of brilliance amongst their own scales. After listening to the story, we all made our own shiny, colorful fish from colored tissue paper and aluminum foil. Everyone around me finished pretty quickly. But I sat there and cut out foil and tissue paper in the shape of scales and glued them down in layers one by one. My fish looked the most like the one in the book. I am proud of that; that I didn’t settle for a fish that looked like everyone else’s. In fact, I still had that fish in a box under my bed until very recently when I decided it was time to let it go. I‘m almost sorry I did now. Though, it is not likely employers will want a portfolio that includes work that I did when I was seven. I hope I saw myself that day as different from others in a positive way rather than in a negative way, maybe for the first time. I don’t think I was trying to be a bigger, more perfect version of myself. I was just being me and it was good. I want to be like that little girl again, because I had it right, then—at seven years old.


  1. These stories are amazing! I think I could read your writings all day long.

  2. priscilla, wow--these are beyond great. keep 'em coming!