Sixth grade in Mrs. Gleason’s class at Raymond J. Lockhart School meant a lot of laughing at you instead of with you. Sixth grade is a pretty snarky place to begin with, and the fact that Mrs. Gleason always seemed intent on teaching us how to diagram sentences or not to misplace the modifier meant that, for the majority of the day, her back was turned as she wrote on the blackboard. A perfect adolescent storm.
One bright spot was that we were allowed to go to the bathroom whenever we had to, not the twice a day group bathroom breaks we’d endured in 5th grade. I didn’t take advantage of the privilege, though I knew girls who did. Mrs. Gleason seemed unaware, which disappointed me a little. I thought noticing seven daily trips to the girls’ room should have trumped finding the past participle.
When you had to go, you walked to the blackboard and wrote your initials in chalk inside a small square she had cordoned off with masking tape. It had two sides to it, boys and girls.
Bobby Murphy was lucky. He was tall and affable and a whiz at dodge ball. This all worked in his favor when his bladder could no longer hold out. Because when it came time for him to put his initials — B.M. — inside the masking tape, it was an all-out laugh riot in Room 212.
Bobby tried his best to choose a time when all eyes were not on the blackboard. He did what he could, at his height, to be unobtrusive as he picked up the chalk. Mrs. Gleason never noticed the laughing — snorting really — because she was more concerned with the difference between adjectives and adverbs. When Bobby walked back in as stealthily as he could and erased his initials, we were reminded of how hilarious it had been the first time. Encore.
On the afternoon Mrs. Gleason announced the rules of the annual short story contest, I listened carefully because I felt I could be a contender. I got a little queasy when she added, “You will read your work aloud,” but I was still intent on the prize. It seems a little odd to me now to think I had such confidence in this den of daily indignation.
We were given the opening paragraph for the story, one that had sort of a Scooby Doo mystery quality to it, around which we had to construct a story with three characters.
Our mothers were invited to attend. Mr. Crouch, the principal, would be there, too, as one of the judges. That added a layer of importance to the contest since just seeing him in the hall once in a while was newsworthy.
I worked on my story every night for two weeks. I read it aloud to my parents so I could practice my delivery. On the day before the contest I heard Robert M. telling Robert T. that he hadn’t started writing his yet. Robert T. said he hadn’t either.
On the big day, once all the guests were seated in the back, Mrs. Gleason began with the obvious.
“I will call names in random order,” she announced. Random order was the norm that year because it kept kids on their toes now that the Russians were getting ahead of us in the Space Race.
Four people read their pieces before me. I wasn’t impressed with their silly plots or their weak character development. So I ticked off at least six kids (including the Roberts) that I would beat out.
Mrs. Gleason called out, “Linda D.”
Excited, I launched myself forward before remembering that I had entwined my feet in the metal rungs under my seat. When my upper body began to move, my legs stayed put. My knees hit first and the chair landed on my back. I have no memory of getting righted or walking to the front of the room. My embarrassment gene had stretched to its limit, which is saying a lot because it was huge when I was in 6th grade.
Had this been any other day, I would have usurped Benny Murphy’s place in the Annals of Comedy for all time. But a roomful of mothers and the principal meant kids were holding back and looking at Mrs. Gleason to see if it was okay to laugh. For once she was paying attention. Her stern look back at them was a definite “No,” for which I was grateful.
By the time I got to the podium, I was blushing, sweating, and my knees were killing me. My mother had a stricken look on her face that for a moment made my chin wobble. But I held that paper in my shaky hands and after all that, my driving thought was, I want everyone to hear what I have to say.
That’s when I knew I had to be a writer.
I won 3rd place. I always wondered if I got some sympathy votes. But I don’t care.
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[I’m taking a week off, so I’ll be back here next Monday. Thanks to those of you who’ve been reading. I’m approaching 20,000 hits!]