Mightier Than The Pen
Cold. Imperious. A fierce beehive. Not a place that housed those most beneficial and industrious of insects, or even a place where they could survive, but an elaborate hair-do. Those are the primary impressions I retain of the woman who, during my fourth year of grade school, made it her mission to finally teach me how to write, and made my life a living hell in the process. Her name was Ms. Hobbs.
Unlike my father, who wrote in small, almost scientifically precise block letters (my father printed everything), or my mother, who wrote in a graceful, curvy script that captured her artistic spirit, my handwriting was atrocious. Beyond atrocious. When it was legible, it was always a case of just barely. That was apparently enough for my teachers in earlier grades, but it didn't cut the mustard with Ms. Hobbs.
Comments such as "difficult to read" "sloppy work" or "illegible" were scrawled in red ink across every assignment she returned to me during that first week in her class, then finally, in smaller letters which seemed to signify some sort of acceptance, "see me after class."
It happened on a Friday afternoon. I sat squirming in my seat, anxious lest I miss my bus and impatient for my weekend of freedom, as the last of my classmates trickled from the room. Thankfully, they didn't seem to notice that I wasn't amongst them. Ms. Hobbs didn't seem to notice, either. She sat behind her desk, writing in a notebook, with nary an upward glance. I had the distinct impression that I was in trouble.
"Mr. Hazan," she finally said, still not raising her eyes. "I'm having a difficult time reading your assignments. Can you offer an explanation?"
I couldn't. I didn't even try. My silence seemed to annoy her.
"Did you transfer here from another school?" she asked.
"No," I mumbled. "I had Miss Kelso last year. Third grade."
She finally looked up at me, and I saw doubt in her steely blue eyes.
"Heidi Kelso allowed you to write like that?"
I didn't know how to respond. I was confused and I was terrified. I had to pee.
She sighed, and the look of consternation passed from her face.
"Do you practice writing at home?"
"No," I admitted.
A light dawned in her eyes and they softened. She handed me five sheets of paper.
"In addition to your other homework, I want you to write the alphabet five times, in both capital and small letters. Due on Monday."
"You're dismissed. Remember that alphabet."
"I will," I said.
It was the first time I ever saw her smile. It was the last time I ever saw her smile, too.
I didn't give her much to smile about, to be fair. Although I was able to write well enough to be understood when I had unlimited time, as with homework, my in-class assignments didn't show much improvement. Ms. Hobbs was not satisfied. She began keeping me after class for the first ten to fifteen minutes of lunch period so that I could practice writing with a time constraint. Each day, she would hand me the most appalling recent example of my failures at penmanship and have me rewrite the assignment while she nibbled daintily at her lunch. Always a bologna sandwich, ruffled potato chips, and Tab.
I remember listening to the sounds of the other kids playing, laughing, and screaming in the sun as I struggled, in that stifling room, to move my pencil smoothly across the grainy brown paper we had back then. My hands were always covered in pencil dust during those lunch time writing sessions, and if my nose happened to be running (it usually was), so was my face. The copies were invariably worse than the originals, pitiful things with scraggly, uneven letters on paper that looked burnt from overuse of the eraser. Occasionally, I even managed to make holes.
None of this made any impression on Ms. Hobbs-- she was determined, if nothing else. She received each recopied assignment without comment, glanced briefly at my work (her face utterly expressionless), then invariably informed me that "we" would try again the next day. I think she believed that my lack of progress was intentional, the product of the defiant and stubborn nature of a willful child. A problem of discipline more than anything else.
Those ideas must surely have passed after a couple of weeks. What child, indeed what adult, would want to go through all that? I worked hard. She was right there and saw that I worked hard, and yet those awful lunchtime sessions continued, quite fruitlessly, for the rest of the year. I've often wondered why she didn't just give up. I have to believe that she at least thought she was doing what was best for me.
If she had only known. If I had only known.
I suffered from asthma as a child, debilitating asthma that was always present and sometimes overwhelming. Unless you have experienced this disease, there is really no way to adequately describe its symptoms, but I will try. Imagine each breath as a battle where you are gasping in air. Not a rush of air, but small, wheezy little gulps. Now imagine fighting to hold that small amount of air inside of lungs that feel as if they are going to rupture from the pressure. Imagine your chest, ribcage, your whole body, really, aching and sore from doing something that most people don't even have to think about. Imagine spending hours like that in dark sleeplessness.
I took three different kinds of pills for asthma every night during the fourth grade, and if I forgot, then I went to the hospital and got shots of adrenaline. I didn't forget very often. The pills made my body, and especially my arms, shake. There was always a little tremor. Although neither I nor my parents were aware of it at the time, that is why I couldn't write clearly. That is why Ms. Hobbs had to suffer through my sloppy assignments.
The science of medicine has advanced a great deal since then. Kids have much better choices for treatment today, without all of those nasty side effects. Doctors don't prescribe those pills I took anymore. I am glad.
When I look back on that year, it is not with self pity over what I went through but with a sense of regret at what I lost. I learned to hate the act of writing in fourth grade. The idea of committing the details of my vivid imagination to paper never crossed my mind, because I could not associate anything so pleasurable with the dreaded task of writing. The 'deep thoughts' and 'profound revelations' experienced by my childish mind are gone forever. The stories that I created, even then, are remembered only in rudimentary fragments that can never be made whole again. I took only the English courses that were required, and turned out brief, uninventive essays in those classes.
And yet I loved to read. If someone else was doing the writing, I was all ears, or eyes, to be more accurate. My favorite as a small kid was Dr. Seuss, wildly creative yet still simple. You have to love a man who invents a word when he's in need of one that rhymes. Dr. Seuss makes you smile. Later, I immersed myself in the fantasy worlds created by C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. I spent countless hours pouring over their books-- what better distraction from the emotional merry-go-round of adolescence? And then I discovered The Catcher in The Rye by J. D. Salinger, which directly and honestly explored that merry-go-round and gave me a new insight into my own evolving existence as a human being. At school, I enjoyed Nathanial Hawthorne, Knut Hamsun, Emily Bronte, George Elliot, and Henry James. All of these writers inspired me, made my mind race, made me grow. None of them caused me to write.
Ironically, by the time I was reading those authors, in high school, there was no longer a reason for me to avoid writing. Many children who suffer from asthma are lucky enough to outgrow the disease, and that is what happened to me. I was able to stop taking medications, and the jittery shakes that had plagued me for most of my life became a thing of the past. My penmanship improved dramatically. It made no difference. I still had no desire to write. I still remembered that fierce bouffant hair-do.
Life is strange. Who could argue? It wasn't, as you might expect, a particularly enthusiastic and nurturing English teacher who would change my attitudes toward writing. Reality is rarely so neat and tidy. A teacher did make a difference, though, in an indirect and unexpected way. An art teacher.
Mr. Preston was a soft-spoken man (you could barely hear him) with an equally mild temperament. His art class was a revelation. I can remember very clearly, on the first day of the second semester of my senior year, straining to hear him give the only instructions he would give to the class as a whole for the entire quarter. He showed us where all of the supplies we might need were located, told us that we were to turn in four projects to be graded over the quarter, then set us loose. I was astonished. This was something different. We could bring our Sony Walkmans to class and listen to music. He didn't care. We could talk whenever we wanted. He didn't care. If we needed to use the restroom, we got up and went. He didn't care.
And yet he did care, in the ways that mattered. If we needed help with a project, or even just ideas for inspiration, he gave them freely. He gave advice on how to make ceramics that didn't explode in the kiln. He told us which types of paints were best suited to which surfaces, and encouraged those who decided to try something different to go for it.
It was in Mr. Preston's art class that I met my friend Carly. She was, and I've no doubt still is, a talented artist. At the time, each of her paintings was accompanied by a poem, or at least a very short story. Although I was more interested in ceramics than painting, I admired Carly's work. Her paintings and the accompanying words seemed to suit and enhance each other perfectly. They reminded me of good old Dr. Seuss. Not that Carly's style was anything like his, but the idea of combining words and images was similar.
The freedom and creativity in that classroom were infectious. I was struck with inspiration. I tried my hand at a few paintings (very, very bad paintings), then imitated Carly's habit of writing poems about what they meant or depicted. I had never written poems before. I liked doing it. I even wrote a few without painting anything.
For the first time, I had translated my voice to paper. Made it concrete. It was also the first time that I felt that I had something to say that was worth putting down on paper, if only for my own pleasure. I have written quite a bit since then: journals, short stories, poems, and some damn good essays. I am not sure if I have the skill or even the desire to become a professional writer, but I am proud of anything that I do write, for whatever reason. It's an expression, a sharing, of what's in my mind and soul. It's an expression of who I am.
Memories of the fourth grade still come back to haunt me sometimes. I can't help but be reminded of Ms. Hobbs whenever I catch a whiff of Aqua Net or see one of the rigid, outdated hairstyles that that redoubtable old product makes possible. Why did Ms. Hobbs choose to make such big deal about my messy writing in the fourth grade? Why did she have such a bee in her bonnet? I'll probably never know for sure, and when all is said and done, it really doesn't matter. She didn't destroy my written voice, only delayed its development. I learned to love to write in spite of her.