“…you to exceed yourselves in these compositions. I want you to look into yourselves, and then show me what’s there. I want to feel you passions. I want to be moved by what you write. Make me happy or sad or wistful or angry, it doesn’t matter what, by I want my emotions stirred. I want to feel what you feel when you write it. I don’t want to see the school paper you’ve been writing for years. I want something that’s outside your comfort zone, that makes you sweat a little, or laugh uncontrollably, something where you wonder if you can write this for a teacher to read, and worry about that after you turn it in. I want to read what you’ve written and think, ‘Oh, that’s who she is; that’s who he is! I didn’t know!’
“Anything goes here. This is your chance to show me how well you can use your imagination and your writing skills and fill up the paper with ideas and excitement and feelings and emotions. Put it all in your papers. Write for me!”
I was looking at Miss Feeny and wondering who she was. I’d thought of her all year as just an old woman who had to teach kids English. Suddenly, I was seeing someone much younger, someone with enthusiasm and life and a sparkle in her eyes. She wasn’t who I’d thought she was at all.
“What’re you doing?” Chad was lying on my bed, as usual. He wasn’t really doing anything. Well, actually he was. He was watching me.
“A paper for English.”
“What’s it about?”
“Anything we want to write about.”
“As long as it needs to be.”
He swung his legs around, dropped his feet to the floor, stood up and walked over to me. I switched the screen to something else.
“Hey, I wanted to look at that. You got me interested. I’m used to assignments where they tell us what to write about, and how long it has to be, what form to write it in, and even what vocabulary words to use. It isn’t our writing, it’s theirs. We don’t think because we are supposed to follow all their suggestions and all their rules.”
I yawned and scratched my armpit and acted like I was indifferent. “Well, this is creative writing, and I guess Miss Feeny means it. The creative part.”
I wasn’t going to let him see it. It was too personal. Of course, Miss Feeny wouldn’t know that. I’d make that clear with a preface, saying I was just making this up out of my head, as she’d asked us to do. I’d be safe that way.
“So what’s it about?”
Could I tell him that? I’d been getting more and more comfortable with Chad, and he’d been hearing some of my private thoughts, just as I’d been hearing his. There wasn’t anything I didn’t know about him, and there wasn’t much he didn’t know about me by now. Just the one big thing, really. Well, two. The gay thing, and the being in love with him thing. Two.
“Uh, I don’t know. . . .”
“Come on, tell me. I’d love an assignment like that. ‘Write whatever you want.’ I’d make it mean something.”
“Marc.” Except he didn’t say it like that. He drew it out and said it with the first syllable high pitched and accented, and then the second syllable in a lower pitch, even though it’s a one syllable name, and the effect was he wasn’t going to take that from me, and I had to answer him or there’d be consequences.
“Oh, OK, but it’s just a paper, an English assignment. I’m writing about a gay boy coming out to his parents.”
“Really?” I could hear his voice change, excitement come into it.
“Yeah. I’m almost done with it.”
“Good. I want to read it.”
“No.” I said it firmly. He’d be OK with that if he knew I meant it.
“What do you mean, ‘No.’ I want to read it. You always read my papers.”
“Well, not this one.”
Oops. What do I say now? Why not indeed?
“Uh, well, I’m not sure it’s very good. So I need to work on it.”
“I’ll help. You always help me.”
“Chad, it’s only an English assignment, for cripes sake! It’s no big deal!”
“That’s what I mean. It’s no big deal. So let me read it.”
I wished he wouldn’t grin and get all logical with me. He knew what that grin did to me. Well, he probably knew.
Could I let him read it? I guessed I could, as long as he understood it was creative writing, made up stuff just for a school assignment.
”Great! Turn it back on.”
“Well, OK, but listen. You’ve got to understand, this is only because she asked us to write outside the box and use our imaginations and all, and write stuff like we’ve never written before, to be a little shocking. That’s why I chose this. It’s just to give her what she wants. That’s all.”
“Of course. What else would it be?”
So I toggled back to the Word screen, and he sat down and read it.
I sort of paced nervously around the room while he was reading it. I was always nervous while he looked at my stuff. He was always generous with his compliments, which was good because I’d found I really needed them. I cared a lot about what he thought. I guess I have what they call a thin skin. I got down if he criticized me. Luckily, he almost never did. Maybe he saw I needed compliments. I hoped I wasn’t that obvious. But maybe I was.
He finished, then pushed the chair back and just sat there.
“Well, what do you think?”
“Uh, pretty good, I guess.”
There was no enthusiasm at all in his voice, and he wasn’t smiling.
“You didn’t like it?” I was really surprised. I’d written about a boy coming out to his parents. It was pretty amazing stuff, I thought. A boy coming out to his parents. How could anything be more interesting or exciting?
“It was OK.”
“You didn’t like it!”
“What was wrong with it? He tells them he’s gay! They talk about it. The mom is upset. It’s great stuff!”
He didn’t respond, just got up and stretched, then kicked off his shoes and lay on the bed.
He didn’t answer.
“What’s wrong with it?”
This time he did look over at me. “You really want to know?”
“Yeah, I really want to know.”
“You don’t have to get sarcastic.”
“Well, you’re not talking to me.”
“Now you’re getting defensive.”
“OK, OK, but it’s only my opinion. It’s your paper, and if that’s what you want to turn in, you should.”
“It’s an A paper!”
“No, it isn’t. And it isn’t the best you can do.”
“Not for a creative writing class. For a regular English class, probably, but you’re better than that. You can write better than that.”
That was how he usually did it. Instead of criticizing me, he managed to find a way to make me feel better about myself. It also made it easier to talk about whatever it was we were discussing because I didn’t feel such a need to defend myself. This time, however, I was a little pissed off, because I thought it was a good paper.
“I think it’ll get an A.”
“You do, huh?”
“OK then, I’ll tell you what. Turn that one in, but write another one, too, and hand it in with this one. And I’ll bet you get an A on the second one, and a B on this one.”
“Why? What’s the second one going to be about?”
“The same thing as this one.”
”Well then, why will it be better?”
“Do you want to know?”
“Yeah, I’m asking, aren’t I?”
“There’s that sarcasm again.”
He could really piss me off when he wanted to. Not that I didn’t deserve it. I was being sarcastic. But still….
“All right. Please tell me why the second one will be better.”
“Because I’m going to tell you what you need to change. Will you do it? Write a second paper?”
“OK. Here’s what I want you to do. This time, start exactly how you started the first one. Same situation, same setup. But, this time, add what he’s feeling when he tells them. Add the feelings he has that make him decide to tell them. You don’t have any emotions at all in the first paper. And what makes his coming out special, and interesting, is how he feels. You left that out, and it’s the whole paper. We have to know what he feels, and what his parents feel. That’s what we want to know.
“It’s going to take you some time, because you have to figure that part out. It might be painful, even, doing that. You have to look inside you, and find those feelings, and express them. Uh, I mean, you have to figure out what feelings that boy would have, and then write them down.”
I looked at him for a moment. Had he meant what he’d said before he’d corrected himself?
“You can make this a really good paper,” he said, not paying any attention to how I was looking at him. “You can make it something she’ll read, and gasp, and read again. That’s how good you can write. I want to see you do it. The first one is OK, but it can be so much better. It can mean something. I dare you. Do it!”
I looked into his eyes, always something that was a little frightening because he always looked into mine when I did so. He wasn’t shy like I was. He wasn’t afraid I’d see into his soul, like I thought maybe he could with me. I looked, and he looked back.
Then I sat down and began writing.
“Marc, can I see you a minute?”
We were just leaving Miss Feeny’s class. She’d handed back the papers, after reading a couple to the class that she’d gotten permission from the kids to read. They’d been good. I was feeling pretty good, too. I kept glancing at the big A+ and the word “Excellent!” on the front of mine. I almost always got A’s on my papers, but, somehow, this one felt better than usual. Special.
I stepped out of the flow of the kids going out of the room and walked over to her desk where she was sitting.
“Marc, about your paper.” She was smiling at me. “That might be the best paper I’ve read in my years teaching here. It was wonderful. I didn’t ask you if I could read it to the class because I was sure, as emotional as it was, as authentic as it sounded, some of the students would have misinterpreted what it was. It was a creative writing assignment where you were to use your imagination and your writing skills to your greatest ability. I know that, but some of them might have forgotten. That’s how well you wrote it.”
She reached out and touched my hand. “I wanted to make sure I told you just how wonderful it was, and that I myself have no problem separating writing assignments from reality.”
I think I blushed. It felt like it. I felt a little shaky inside, but not what I thought I’d feel.
“Marc, you’re a special boy, and a special student. I’m always interested in reading what you write. Now I have a new perspective on you. And your writing ability. I’ll expect your papers to be better from now on. Now that I know what you are capable of. Now that I know you better.”
There was no way not to know that I’d outed myself to a teacher. I was experiencing the emotions of that for the first time. Funny, it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be.
Her smile made all the difference.
I hadn’t turned in both papers. The second one was better. I knew that when I was writing it, and was sure when I’d finished it. It made the first one look sort of trivial. The second one was harder to write. I did have to look inside myself. I did have to look at some fears I hadn’t known I’d had. I’d told myself I wasn’t going to talk to my parents about being gay because there was no point in it. Writing this paper, I realized there was a point in it, and I wasn’t telling them because I was afraid to.
I realized how courageous the boy in my story was being. I realized how he’d feel, both telling them, and dealing with how they felt afterwards. It was a much better story than the first one. I felt very proud of it, but very afraid to let anyone else read it, even Miss Feeny.
It was Chad who convinced me I should, that I had to let him read it. He worked on me, and worked, and in the end, it was probably that I just couldn’t deny him anything he wanted. There was so much honesty in the paper, I was sure he’d realize I was gay when he read it. I made up all sorts of reasons why I’d written it, and told him all sorts of tales about how I’d figured out what the boy and the parents were feeling. I didn’t see how any of it would fool him, but I told him what I told him anyway.
It was funny. I knew the paper was good, and so I wanted him to read it, so he could tell me it was good and so I could enjoy the compliments, but also so he’d see how well I could write and be proud of me. At the same time, I was scared to death when he read it that he’d look at me differently. Talk about mixed feelings! I was actually holding my breath when he read it, I was so worried. And excited.
He didn’t look at me differently, though. He read it, and when he was finished, he stood up with a huge smile on his face and hugged me. Tight. He hugged me and said, “I knew you could do it! This is so much better than the first one! This is so great, Marc, so great. That’s the best I’ve ever seen you write, and you always write well. This is just great!”
Then he argued with me about turning it in. I didn’t think I could. Again, he wore me down. It had been a pretty good fight because I was just not going to budge. I’d fought and argued and fussed and moaned. And then I’d handed it in.
In my room after school, Chad asked me if I’d got the paper back.
“Yeah,” I said, moping a little. “She didn’t like it. Said I shouldn’t be writing about gay kids. Told me she might have to report me to the principal.”
“No she didn’t!”
“Did. You got me in trouble.”
“I don’t believe it. Let me see it!”
“I tore it up.”
“No you didn’t! Let me see it.”
“I left it at school.”
He grabbed my backpack. That of course resulted in an all-out wrestling match, but as usual, there was that same reason I could only wrestle for a short while.
He found the paper, and grinned. Then laughed. “Report you to the principal. Right. Maybe so they can give you a writing award.”
I was proud. He thought I was a good writer, and he thought I deserved an award. And he liked to wrestle with me. My face was stretched to the limit by my smile. I was entirely happy.
Until he ruined it.
“So, are you going to show it to your parents?”