Sunday, December 03, 2006

Pen/Faulkner Gala - Lost and Found

I just came across a little essay I wrote for the Pen/Faulkner Foundation's Gala ceremony last year. They invite a bunch of writers to come and read individual three minute pieces written only with the title as inspiration. In 2005 the theme was "Lost and Found". The writers all had vastly different takes on this theme, which they should since it was such a diverse group. Here's what I wrote... (It's all true, by the way.)

I remember the first time I read 40 pages of a chapter book in a day. I was staying with my father in Trinidad, about twelve or so, and the book was The Hobbit. I also remember my pride and amazement the next day, when I read 90 pages. I hadn't known such feats of literary endurance were even possible. Then came the day that I read an entire book in one day. It was Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander. And, most memorable, the summer night at the old house Highland Beach when I stayed up all night reading CS Lewis' A Horse and His Boy, stretched out on an ancient bed before one of those industrial strength metal blade fans, the kind that could really take a finger off. I loved reading so much that by Eight Grade I'd filled a journal with short stories and declared within its pages that I was going to be a writer. Fourteen years old and I'd named my life's work.

Then, however, I began high school. Everything that I'd come to love about reading - the excitement of unbridled imaginative journeys - was strangled out of me. Part of this was the texts we had to read, part of it was the metaphor-by-numbers teaching approach. And part of it was that joy and excitement seemed to have no place in the reading experience anymore. It was neither fun, nor challenging.

There were a few moments when I was excited by reading during this time. Once, my mother gave me The Color Purple. From the first, hard hitting lines I was entranced, challenged, horrified. I read the book in blur and proposed it for a tenth grade book report project. My teacher, Mrs. White, (and yes, she was) shook her head. She said, as I remember it, "No, you can't do that. That's not a real book."

Disappointed and cynical, I grabbed up The Pearl by John Steinbeck - which I'd read the previous year. I skimmed it without enthusiasm and wrote just what Mrs. White wanted and expected from me - a C minus paper. Things went downhill from there. In the end I barely skated out of high school as a D student. My guidance councilor encouraged my mother to get me into some sort of vocational program, because I'd already shot my chances for getting into college. That seems crazy now, but there's truth in it insofar as I'd largely lost faith in education. I'd stopped reading and I certainly had forgotten my desire to be a writer. Four years of high school English, and I'd lost the life work I'd been able to name as an Eight grader.

So how did I end up here, before you? After a year or so of bumming around after graduation I signed up for a continuing studies writing course at Johns Hopkins. The very first paper I wrote was returned to me with a big F on it, and a cryptic note from the teacher - David, call me. I did, and I had a very difficult time with that conversation. Somehow, though, to her credit, I left it having been challenged. Essentially, I hung up the phone believing her to have said that I could think whatever I wanted. I could argued for whatever cause I wanted. I could disagree with her about everything in the world, if I wished. BUT... I had to write it well, convincingly. I had to write clearly. I had to support my claims with evidence. I had to strive, she told me, for a level of excellence never expected of me before. Simple. I rewrote that paper, handed it in and got it back with an A at the top instead of an F. The title of the paper was "America's Glorious Abundance". It transformed me from a D student to an A student, and set me back on the path I'd named earlier. I'd found my identity again.

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1 Comments:

Anonymous Mike Shammas said...

Good Job David! Keep up the work... lookin forward to Acacia!

5:48 PM  

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