It’s been 35 years and I have finally forgiven my 5th grade teacher.
She held a writing competition near the end of the school year – I’m assuming to showcase all we’d learned in her class that year. We were to submit a book and then she would choose the best one from the submissions.
This was finally an assignment I was sure I would ace in that I had decided I wanted to be a novelist the year before. It was a perfect opportunity to show my writing abilities and to start building my resume for my future career field.
I don’t remember how long we were given to complete the assignment. I do remember spending what seemed like weeks in kid time working on my book. I wrote it all longhand in my notebook to figure out exactly how it would go before carefully typing it onto the sheets of printer paper I’d folded in half horizontally, book-like. I then illustrated it and spent hours meticulously coloring the pictures. Once the inside of the book was complete, I made a cover out of cardboard wrapped in the Christmas wrapping paper that I’d set aside for a special occasion and delicately attached the innards of the book to it. I’m not sure if I’d ever been prouder of anything I’d made up until then or since. I put my heart into that book and I was sure I’d win first place. I was certain my book would change lives.
I did not win first place. In fact, I’m not sure where I placed in that she never even acknowledged my book. She never said one word about it. She just put it in my box at the end of the day without a word either written or said. Then she avoided me.
To add insult to injury, she gushed over the book she chose as a winner and held it up for all the class to see. It was nothing but a couple of pieces of paper stapled together. It didn’t even look like it had a title. I had poured weeks into my carefully hand-crafted book and to lose out to a couple of pages merely stapled together!
I was incensed! What a slap to the face! And, from that day on, as far as I was concerned my 5th grade teacher was dead to me. Luckily, it was the end of the year so I did not have to endure shunning her for long, nor acknowledge the fact that she didn’t seem to notice being shunned.
Fast forward to the present. My teenaged daughter was in the attic looking through a box of my old things and came across my 5th grade book. She brought it downstairs, handed it to me and asked, “What’s this?”
I was brimming with nostalgia as I started to flip through the book I’d worked so hard on. The book I was sure would change lives. But as I read through it again after 35 years, I started laughing hysterically. It was so over the top serious and dramatic that it was deranged.
I should probably give a little background at this point. My father is a recovering alcoholic (45 years!) and for many years when I was a child he attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Therefore, when my parents didn’t have a babysitter, we would go to AA meetings with them on Friday nights. And since the meetings were anonymous and sometimes not child friendly, we, as children, had to spend time in the lobby during the serious part of the meeting. We brought books, but sometimes still got bored and I ended up reading a lot of AA pamphlets, which tended to illustrate the perils of drinking to excess. Apparently, those pamphlets, combined with the after-school specials I used to watch (such as this Helen Hunt driven gem) and probably the D.A.R.E program at school, germinated the book I’d written in fifth grade.
It is the story of a young man who steals a cookie which predicatbly leads to him becoming a drug-addicted alcoholic thief trying to kill himself after hitting his mother and spending time in the clink. The author (5th grade me) had some ummm… ideas not grounded in reality on what the Empire State building looked like, how the criminal justice system is run, the cost of weed and what leads people into drug and alcohol addiction.
I have to admit, after reading the book now as a grown woman, I can better understand the shock and distress it caused my poor 5th grade teacher. It was filled with fairly dark content for a bubbly 5th grader who, up until that point, spent most of her time talking about New Kids on the Block. My teacher was a little old woman who probably thought a career teaching 10-year-olds would keep her safe from the murkier side of life. I can imagine she was ill-prepared for the dank, seedy world of crime and addiction I had dramatically captured with the jolly clickity-clack of my mother’s typewriter. I’m sure she was taken aback having had this book dropped in her lap with a cover cheerfully (and ironically) wrapped in plaid Christmas wrapping paper. That poor woman. I can’t say I would have known how to respond to it if I had been in her shoes. I can say, however, that that book did change a life. Maybe just not in the way that my little 10-year-old self was hoping for. It softened the author’s hardened heart. After 35 years of bearing that grudge against my 5th grade teacher, I finally forgave her.
The source of the misunderstanding:
A transcript for those reading this on your phones who can’t see the type writing in the photos:
The Bad Habit
At age 8 the boy started by sneaking a cookie. Since he got away with it, he kept sneaking things.
When he was 17, he was driving by a closed supermarket. Reading the cash register amount, he saw that the store had made $900 that day. He thought he needed that money. He circled the supermarket a few times, then broke it. Just as he was leaving he heard a siren. Knowing it was the police, he tried to find another way out but he was caught.
He was put in a cold cell with an open toilet. He sat on his bed, buried his head in his hands and cried. Soon he was set free for being good.
After his release, he was caught robbing a bank. He was paroled a month later.
Now his mother wouldn’t talk to him. She didn’t hate him, but she was very upset and she didn’t want him to see the tears in her eyes.
When he was watching T.V., he saw a movie with drugs in it. The people on the movie said that drugs brought them deep satisfaction. (He did not know that drugs kill people, not help them.). They said drugs are O.K. as long as you don’t get caught by the police.
The boy had been using drugs for almost a year and his life was a mess. He couldn’t stand himself. Saturdays he went out with his new friends. He had dropped out of school and had destroyed his car in a fire.
He got caught by his mother stealing $200 from her purse for marijuana. When he saw her watching him, he grabbed the money, hit his mother and ran out of the house.
When trying to get in the house the next morning he found the doors locked. He searched his pockets for a key, but he had forgotten it. He couldn’t think straight. He needed a beer.
Looking through his mother’s car, he found an unopened bottle of whiskey. He drank the whiskey, remembering about when he broke into the supermarket. He decided to break in the house.
Inside, he heard somebody run down the hall and slam the door. He knew it was his mother and he remembered now how he had hit her the night before. How could he have been such a fool?
He sat down on the couch and watched T.V. By 10:00 he was so drunk he passed out. He woke up in jail. The chief told him it was because he’d hit his mother and was caught smoking marijuana.
By now he was used to sitting in the cell.
The boy was set free after year in jail. He didn’t want to live anymore. He wanted to end his life. He asked his friends what to do. One said to try flying like a bird off the top of the tallest building in New York. That sounded perfect.
He left a note to this mother telling her what he was going to do. When she found it she went to the Empire State Building.
He was there on the ledge flapping his arms. She ran upstairs to the main roof. She grabbed his hands and told him she would help him get through his problems. She promised not to call the police. If he jumped, she said, she would not go on living because he would have broken her heart.
He didn’t move, but he smiled a little. He got off the ledge and they both heard people cheering.
His mother loved him and he loved her.
After that night the boy got help.
By age 21, he wasn’t drinking and he never used drugs again. He went back to high school, then on to college.
The boy has a beautiful wife, two children, and a great job as a cartoonist.
His mother never forgot what happened, but she loved her son so much she tried not to think of it.
The boy never forgot it either. He remembered that it was a bad habit that he had started at age 8.