As of late, I’ve thought back upon where my writing journey has taken me. I didn’t start with a propensity for writing or even a knack for it. In fact, as a child writing is what I hated most about school. Anything involving expressing myself through written word instantly made me feel frustrated. I preferred different subjects in school, like free time, morning recess, silent reading (AKA free time) lunch, and afternoon recess.
If you ever have the desire to hear the story of my beginnings as a writer just as my mom. She has told the story a thousand times and will continue to tell the story for a thousand more. It doesn’t really faze her that she’s told it before, in fact, she doesn’t even care if you’ve heard it; she’ll retell the whole thing just to tell it again. I wish I could say the story changed, that with every edition she tells, a new piece is added to embellish the story, but no, it’s the same every time. I’m stuck listening to the perpetual rerun of my childhood disdain for writing.
It would be easy to call her vain, to suggest that she simply likes the sound of her own voice and the sound of story. That is not the case. There is some sort of blind spot in her mind, perhaps faulty wiring or a malfunctioning quadrant in her brain. She is unable to keep count of the amount of times she tells a story. She doesn’t commit to memory her verbal recollections of fond or ironic memory of her children. There is no part of her brain that tires from the repetition; the syndrome is one she’s had for almost thirty years now, at times she forgets she has it all together. It might be tempting to call her forgetful, but it’s more than that. It’s one of the many side effects of a syndrome society calls “proud parenting.”
It’s not fatal. There’s no need to start a kickstarter for my mother’s bucket list (though I’m sure she’d appreciate the gesture). She’s learned to cope with it, more than half of her life she’s lived with this diagnosis.
I first learned of her condition when I started writing more. As my writing skill began to improve, I noticed a pattern in her story telling. And by pattern, I mean she told the same story over and over (and over and over…) and over again. If by some stroke of luck or act of God you haven’t heard the story, please cease reading and call my mother, she’ll do a much better job telling it. I’ve only told the story three, maybe four times. My mom must be on her fifteen, or sixteen thousandth time, and that’s a very rough estimate at best. Who knows how many times she’s printed off one of my blog posts (with the swear words whited out) and shared it with the secretaries at her school.
Her story always starts the same:
“Nick didn’t always like writing!” she likes to interject with this statement.
“I’ll never forget it,” she proudly says with a smile on her face, “in fourth grade Nick had to do a five sentence news article summary every week. Five sentences! It was like pulling teeth with him. He couldn’t do it! He’d complain and complain,” her head bobs side to side like a pendulum. “He’d throw himself on the ground and say, ‘I hate writing.’” She elongates the word hate either in over exaggeration or perfect recollection, I haven’t quite figured out which.
“He’d ask, ‘When am I ever going to need to write, this assignment is so stupid!’ And I’d have to walk him through the entire thing.” The story marches on, she continues to be a helping Sherpa-like mother and I continue to be a petulant child.
And she’s absolutely right. I hated writing almost as much as I hated Saturday morning chores. I don’t say that lightly, either. There are very few things in human history quite as evil and malevolent as stealing away a kid’s Saturday morning. As a child, I had dreams of starting a coalition of neighborhood kids to stand up to the disparaging acts of unloading the dishwasher and mowing the lawn.
My hatred for the writing assignment did not compel me to complete it quickly or efficiently. The only thing it did quicken was my dislike for Ms. Denning, my teacher. By the end of the first week of fourth grade, I had decided that Ms. Denning was a rather unfitting name. The Tyrant fit her much better. It had a nice ring to it and rather appropriate considering how she treated her students. I’m confident, even now, that if her parents had the opportunity to get to know her from a fourth grader’s perspective, they would have come to the same conclusion. The writing assignment, and my hatred for it, only added to the proof for her nickname.
Like the good procrastinator I am, I put avoided writing the assignment the same way a rabid dog avoids water. Instead of putting my energy towards completing it or bettering myself, I did what any self-respecting fourth grader would do; I cheated the system.
The directions of the assignment were to write five sentences providing a summary of a piece of writing in the newspaper. That’s all the Tyrant said we had to do. Her lack of specificity provided the keys to the shackles of hard work. More times than I care to admit, I didn’t do a summary of an actual article. Anything that required reading comprehension was strictly forbidden.
The classifieds and obituaries were perfect. They were already succinct and every sentence had a purpose; filler words were a waste of time, they kept me from riding bikes or watching TV. I figured doing an obituary gave me good karma; I was spreading the story of someone’s life to more people, even if it was for my own selfish gains.
The first assignment I did my review on a Calvin and Hobbes comic. When the teacher told me I couldn’t do comics, I acted very surprised, apologized profusely and feigned embarrassment. The Tyrant told me to make sure to do something without pictures next time. I promised to do better next time, and scratched one assignment off that year’s homework list: one down, forty-three to go. I was playing the long game. I was committed to shirking off the assignment; it’s hard work avoiding work.
Perhaps my greatest achievement in the battle against The Tyrant, the one that never failed to spread a devious smirk across my face, came in the form of emulation. Of the five sentences I had to do, I always started and ended the homework assignment the same. The first sentence was always, “The summary I wrote was about an article titled….” Then I’d finish it with, “And that’s my summary of the article titled…”
So really I had to write three sentences. If my mom had known my clever ploy to do less work, her exasperation with me would have only been compounded. I felt that perhaps my summary was the truest summary of news articles because almost half of the writing was useless filler. There was an ironic justice to it, and I was so proud of it I had to name it. The epiphany hit me one day while we worked on fractions; “The Three Fifth’s compromise” was the name that struck me, unfortunately. My child mind had no idea the phrase had already been used a hundred and fifty years earlier, but by some desperate and particularly racist individuals.
Regardless, I kept doing this all year. I thought I was brilliant, because I had somehow outwitted the system. The Tyrant had finally been ousted and outsmarted. When we’d do fractions in class, I’d get a devilish smile across my face when the fraction 3/5 came up, as it reminded me of my subtle victory over the Tyrant.
I was so confident in my victory, so sure of my web of lies and fluff, I presented my summary to the class. The best kind of pride made my chest swell and my grin display itself. Pride not in a hard day’s work, but in beating the system, in exploiting a flaw and getting away with it. Throughout the entire reading of my summary, I stood proud and waited for the applause of my classmates that would undoubtedly follow. After presenting, we were allowed to do a Q and A. I had practiced all my answers,
“Yes, this was as enjoyable for me to read, as it was for you to listen to.”
“Yes, writing comes easy to me, that’s why I don’t like it.”
“No, I won’t be giving out autographs, but yes I’ll play kickball with you at recess.”
I waited to give the answers, eagerly I anticipated their questions. A hand shot up after I finished reading, the kid wanted to say something for a long time patiently waited till the end. I pointed at him and smiled, “aren’t we supposed to do five sentences?” he said accusingly. “Nick only had three if you take off the two useless sentences at the beginning and end.”
“Yeah, well, why don’t you shut the hell up, Austin Rifkin? Go stuff your stupid bull-cut in a toilet and flush.”
That’s what I wanted to say. Instead, I stood in front of the class, paper quivering in my hand and mouth ajar, aghast that I had just been outed in front of twenty-five of my classmates. The Tyrant simply extended her hand, in the same way a police chief extends his hand towards a careless detective to turn in his gun and badge. After reading it, she decided I had to stay in during recess and finish the two sentences in the beginning and end.
Just three months before finishing the fourth grade, and therefore putting the dreaded writing assignment behind me, my trick failed. My arrogance had been my downfall, if I had just continued to silently defy The Tyrant I wouldn’t have noticed. Instead, in an act of lunacy, I displayed the trick. The Tyrant went back and read through my previous news articles again and saw them in a different light as if she obtained the secret decoder. Instead of revealing that she needed to drink more ovaltine, the decoder removed the veil of hard work and labeled me a lazy deadbeat.
But much of that is left untold. That’s part of my story, not my mom’s. As I grow older, and interact with more kids, stories such as these stick in my mind. The profound exasperation a child feels over something so trivial is comical. With no perspective, something like writing five sentences or staying in for recess is a living nightmare for kids, making it even more entertaining to witness. I’m not surprised she enjoys telling it so much.
I’ve done no justice to the story she tells, because it truly is her story. The tale she weaves is much more exciting, captivating and enthralling, at least the first three or four dozen times you hear it. Like a bard in the days of old, she’s put time and energy in perfecting this tale. She’ll tell the story up until the end. When she’s on her death bed, my mother will motion me closer and grab me by the collar. Pulling me close in order to hear, her dying words will be, “have I ever told you about how much Nick used to hate writing?”