Memoir: Sword

Speaking of self-involvement, I remembered this thing when I was in the shower this morning: how I discovered writing.

My father had died, like I said, when I was ten, and we moved into Manhattan from Long Island a year later, so that my mother, I think, could date more easily (no judgment—it was 1967, she was 38, had three young kids, no money, and needed a plan). She enrolled me at P.S. 6, on the Upper East Side, and somehow finagled it so that I was put into the sixth-grade I.G. class—the class for so-called intellectually gifted kids. <a href="I told you already that I was a wreck, so this development was a stroke of karmic genius: If torture by humiliation at eleven doesn’t kill you, it leads you to ask a lot of important questions later on.

So it was clear that the teacher, Miss Baron, who sported a loose orange beehive and always wore red lipstick, didn’t like me. Maybe I wasn’t smart enough, or well-enough educated, or too sad and angry—I suspect it was all three. At one point, anyway, she told my mother she was going to transfer me out of the class, and my mother managed to stop her. So I’m not making it up; she didn’t want me around. Needless to say, I spent many evenings crying over the fact that my homework was actually too hard for me to do.

Somewhere in the middle of the school year, though, Miss Baron told us to write two poems, and bring them in the next day. I’d never written a poem before, but when I sat down to dutifully do it, I discovered this amazing thing: writing it down to figure it out. I had a lot to say, it turns out, but not the sort of stuff you talk about. (If you know what I mean.) I wrote one poem called “Who Am I?,” and another one about time. I didn’t consider whether or not they were good—of course, they wouldn’t be—but they just fell out, and that was a bright experience in a dark time.

All grownups in the 1960s
The next day Miss Baron called us up to her desk, one by one, which was something I dreaded and loved. It was hard to have a conversation with an adult back in those days who wasn’t drunk and/or high,* so these chats at school, though intimidating, were an opportunity to have some sane face time with someone other than my poodle, Zsaz (who was a really good listener). Miss Baron, on this day, snatched my first poem from my hand (or so it seemed to me) and started reading, clearly expecting the usual annoying stupidity. I believed I was a fuck up, so I sat there waiting to be put down and sent off by Miss Baron with a impatient little shake of her head and a roll of her eyes.

But something else happened. I watched her reading the poem with her furrowed brow and her pursed lips, filled, like tiny rivers, with red goop, and suddenly her face changed. The lines disappeared from her forehead. Then she looked at me over the paper. It was not a happy look, or a look of relief: it was a blank look. But behind the blank I could see what she was hiding: surprise. Total surprise.

That’s how I became a writer: I wanted to see that look again. Thank you, Miss Baron, wherever you are, for giving me that. Thank you for making me a writer, however vengeful, and for kicking my ass.

*See John Updike’s amazing story on the subject, “The Lovely Troubled Daughters of Our Old Crowd.”