The infamous “What I did on my Summer Vacation Essay”, I’m not sure I was ever assigned that one. Suddenly I see myself in Junior English. I was 16, flat chested, boyfriendless, wanting desperately to have the whole fitting popular feeling behind me. And it almost was, but only almost because there I was sitting in my name brand jeans thought I probably spent all my birthday money on. I am also pretty sure that I woke up at least an hour before school started to get my hair just right. I am still clueless with what to do with makeup but that never stopped me then. I wish I had had enough sense to throw on those old comfy jeans. The ones with the holes in them ( not on purpose), a soft t-shirt and pulled my hair into a ponytail……but that wardrobe would have to wait until college.
But back to my 16 year old self, English was just a class. Not one I particularly looked forward to either. If anyone had asked my favorite subject I never would have said English. I dreaded the essays and sentence diagramming. I did look forward to the reading lists, although , I tried not to appear too eager. I complained as much as the rest as the class, but at home I read them. Cover to cover. Usually well before the deadline. I hated homework of read chapters one and two. I read books, like I later learned to drink beer. Fast until I finished. I couldn’t stop at the end of chapter two. I needed to know what happened like I needed another drink.
And I liked the excuse to read, at this stage I of felt like I needed one. Reading was kind of cool for a while. Me and Ramona Quimby were the best of friends in elementary school. I also went through a slightly embarrassing Babysitters Club phase, but am pleased to report that the Sweet Vally High Twins and I never clicked. Sometime in junior high those books seemed babyish, and replaced with talking on the phone, listening to music ( really bad music I might add) and learning how to French kiss. So when we got our reading lists every year I dug in.
So, back to the first week of English III. You already have most of the background, but what you don’t know is that I was more than a bit guarded. I didn’t like letting people in. Really in. Being vulnerable wasn’t exactly safe in my family and well not that safe for anyone in high school period. That being said I would have killed for our first writing assignment to be “what I did on my summer vacation”. Surely I would have written something amusing or satirical. I doubt I would have truly written about our beach vacation where more than likely my parents screamed at each other, I got 3rd degree burns and most of my family got drunk and passed out. Possibly even me. I can’t remember that summer in particular but they were all pretty much the same. Not to say there weren’t any warm memories from those summer beach retreats. Surprisingly there are many, but at 16 you kind of gravitate towards the bad stuff. The melancholy teenager hanging on to anything to give her a thick wall to build around herself. Yes, I would have written something light and clever and given it a really zingy title. I was well known for my zingy titles. Instead Mrs. Lampo asked us to write not one silly essay but a collection of private personal ones. I believe it was called a “me book”. I cringed as she described the assignment. Now, as a teacher I can see what she was trying to do. She wanted to get to know us. Who we were, what we liked, how we wrote, how to reach us. The problem was, I was 16 and she was one of them. A grown up. A teacher. A mom of a kid in our class. She was not to be trusted. How could I write all these essays on who I was, my strongest influences, the things I was most proud of etc.. Maybe later in the year. Maybe by April or something when we had a chance to feel each other out. Not now. Not the first week. I can picture her clearly. She was about my mom’s age. Short, with short dark hair. She was always very smartly dressed, much more stylish than my mom and with her toes perfectly pedicured. She always seemed a bit shifty to me. She had this large mole on her face that I couldn’t help but stare at as she lectured. It was about the size of a dime and I swear it got bigger as the year went on. It has made me really self councious about my own mole. I keep thinking about having it removed all because of the time I spent making fun of hers in the 11th grade. She was probably a pretty good teacher, although she made me uneasy. Usually good teachers fall into one of two categories: cold, hard and feared, but eventually that fear turns into respect and the cold starts to warm. This would be Mrs. Holmes my 6th grades science teacher and first F I ever received on a test. Next would be the warm and encouraging type. You learned so much simply because you wanted to please them. This would be my 10th grade English teacher, Mrs. Prejean who introduced me to Anne Sexton on the first day ( no damn summer vacation essays from her either). I wouldn’t have memorized that ridiculously long Friends, Romans, Countrymen speech for anyone else. Mrs. Lampo didn’t quite fit into either category. I suppose she was hard, but not especially challenging. I didn’t warm to her, nor did I truly respect her. I did, however, like to argue with her. This was her fault of course. She introduced our poetry unit with this long flowery speech about how no opinion or interpretation of a poem could be wrong. There were no dumb questions or bad observations. Once again, as a fellow educator I can see what she was trying to do. She wanted to create a safe atmosphere for us to speak up and discuss. The only problem with that was she announced to my class that my observation was dead wrong only 15 minutes after her flowery speach. I didn’t burn with shame, instead I took it as a challenge. Maybe this challenge was just what I needed to motivate me to prove myself to her academically or maybe all it motivated me to do was toilet paper her house and leave an egg in her mailbox with a threatening note about Thoreau.
Back to my first week assignment…These personal essays had a cold fearful grip on me. Usually my writing process involved mulling the topic over for a bit and then pouring it all out on paper the day or so ( or occasionally the period) before it was due. I didn’t proofread or spellcheck. I finished them in a flurry and handed them in. I think I was afraid if I gave them a proper reading I would be too embarrassed to even have them graded. My spelling was not something to be envied. I never quite got a great grasp on grammar either. To this day I couldn’t tell you what a gerrand is. I somehow managed to get As, although my papers were usually heavily marked with red.. These essays were different. I was supposed to reveal something about myself. To her. To someone who could be my mother…and that would be the last person I wanted to be unguarded around. Sometimes I still feel that way. I briefly just considered making it all up. Some fictional crap that would satisfy her little assignment and still get me a good grade. It might even be fun, making things the way I wanted them to be instead of how they were. I also considered doing what I usually ( yes still) do when I am a bit uncomfortable and guarded…being funny. Writing decent essays, but not digging in. Keeping them on the surface and full of satire. The struggle was I couldn’t do either. It felt like I would be cheapening it somehow. I didn’t trust this Mrs. Lampo or her mole. It was still too early to tell if she would earn my respect, but I realized the writing already had. That it didn’t just get to scratch the surface or be passed off as a joke. That it was bigger than my fear. So I did it. I wrote about my fears and my hopes and my proudest moments. I put it all on paper and fearfully turned it in. Who it was this 16 year old girl thought she was. I saved one of those essays. I think it is in my high school box up in my parent’s attic. I did get an A. I can’t remember if it was really any good or not. I didn’t sign up to be my high school newspaper editor or go on to pursue a degree in journalism. I didn’t spend all my free time writing short stories instead of watching 90210, but it did teach me that this writing stuff was real. It had to be vulnerable, and it was most certainly to be respected, big hairy mole and all.