In 1992, my family moved to a different part of town, and my sisters and I had to switch schools in the middle of the year. I was in fourth grade, and this change was highly traumatic on several levels. First, I lost my two best friends (Katie O and Katie P); second, no one at my new school knew that I was worth a damn; and third, it’s hard to make new friends. (Coincidentally, these are the same things that concerned me when my husband and I moved ourselves across the state last year, but I digress.)
My new teacher, Mrs. Whitney, was a very different kind of teacher than the others I’d had up until then. She was a strong older woman, and, though I’d probably have thought of someone in their mid-forties as “old” at that point, she was likely in her late fifties. (Mrs. Whitney obviously has a first name, but I can’t seen to recall it at the moment. Every time I try to add a first name to her, all I can come up with is Eli Whitney, the inventor of the cotton gin. Since that’s not her, we’re out of luck. Unless it’s Carol. Or Barbara. I don’t know. Wait—it’s Pat. And now you know. Phew.)
Mrs. Whitney was attentive and kind, but, as I mentioned, intimidating—the kind of no-nonsense woman who would probably require her grandchildren address her as “Grandmother” rather than “Grammy” or “Nana”. One thing that gave me confidence in my new school was that the Bible unit the class was studying when I first started attending was about the book of Esther, and I already knew that story in great detail from my cassette tape audiobook that came with an Esther action figure. I aced the test even though I’d missed most of the unit. Boom. Mordecai knowledge FTW.
With that feather in my cap, I went to Mrs. Whitney at the end of class one day in January or February and pulled out a worn blue spiral notebook, in which I’d written my latest story, an eight-page masterpiece entitled BLIZZARD!
BLIZZARD! was about a group of children who became snowed in at their school overnight† while all of the teachers and other adults were stuck in a different building. It was a children’s adventure thriller—a story of big kids taking care of little kids and closets that were inexplicably filled with flashlights, snacks, and blankets. In the end, the janitor shows up with a snowblower to save them all.
I don’t remember if Mrs. Whitney wrote any comments throughout the story, but I do remember that she helped me with a few misspelled words and, on the last page, drew a smiley face and wrote “Great story! Keep writing!”
Teachers, you make an impression. Never forget that.
I plotted out the two sequels that I intended to write (Flood! and Earthquake!), but I never actually got around to writing them. I think I wrote a page or two of the second one, but never wrote a word of the third. Sometimes it was enough for me to write out a summary of a story that was in my head, so I never had to actually put the pencil to the lined page. Sometimes it wasn’t, and I’d write the whole thing or at least the exciting parts. And sometimes I’d just start with a basic premise and see where the story went.
I didn’t really know much about writing; after all, I was only ten years old. My stories were poorly structured and filled with sheer nonsense. Lucky for me, I was surrounded by encouraging beta readers, who never told me that writing was stupid or a waste of time. I am so grateful for that. Simple encouragement can make all the difference to someone who is just starting out.
Each time I shared something I’d written with someone, their encouragement got me to the next story. I think that’s in part why I’ve started this blog. It’s a place for feedback. I know the Internet isn’t the best place to look for constructive criticism, but, if I’m really going to try to be a writer, then I need to be ready for negativity and trolling even as I’m hoping for hand-drawn smiley faces and a scribbled, “Great story! Keep writing!”
And that’s the tale of how a Queen Esther action figure and a story about a blizzard saved me from fourth grade invisibility.
† Random tidbit: This actually happened a few weeks ago in upstate New York. I lived in upstate NY for four years, so I’m guess that it actually happens several times every year up that way, but it made national news this time. Full Story