When I was in sixth grade, my teacher pulled me aside to “have a talk” in the hallway.
This happened in the middle of the day, in front of all my classmates. I was embarrassed and nervous. I had no idea what I had done wrong to prompt this private discussion.
I remember it better than I should.
My desk was pushed into a square with six other students’ desks. I know now that this was to encourage teamwork. For me, it mostly encouraged talking. I’m chatty. And goofy. A storyteller. I like to make people laugh. This was true even as a child. I figured a hallway scolding meant I’d done something disruptive in the talking department. It wasn’t the first time I’d been reprimanded for not shutting up.
Oh, but I had been on a roll of good behavior!
We had been writing that week, a lot of open-ended stuff. I had turned in a few wild short stories; stories I was proud of, though for the life of me I can’t remember what they were about.
Man, I wish I could.
“Can we have a talk in the hallway, Heidi?”
I awkwardly got up from my desk, stumbled around my seat and with a red face pocked with pimples, shrugged my shoulders as my classmates looked at me sympathetically. I’m sure they thought they were next.
My teacher had a look of concern on her face. Her usual saucer-like eyes were narrow. Her hair unkempt. Her forehead shiny. She had a brooch pinned to her chest, a dagger made to look like a flower.
I stood in the hallway, outside our closed classroom door and stared, dumbly, at my feet.
“The stories you turned in this week,” she began. “Were they yours?”
I looked up from my feet. My cheeks were burning. My pits were sweating. She was accusing me of plagiarizing.
“Yes,” I said. “They were mine. You think I copied them?”
She didn’t believe me. Her eyebrows were practically crisscrossed.
“I didn’t copy them,” I repeated. “I like writing. I would never cheat on it.”
This was 100% true. In all my years of schooling, I never once plagiarized a story. I cheated in math. I cheated in science. I may have even cheated in gym. But I never cheated in English. I swear over a stack of Steinbecks.
She looked visibly pissed. I thought I was doing the right thing by fighting for my innocence. Little did I know, I was digging myself into an even deeper hole by admitting the copy was my own.
“You wrote them?” She asked once more.
“Yes,” I squeaked, terrified by her response.
Her reaction was a mix of disbelief and horror. Had I written something disturbing? This was sixth grade. My Sylvia Plath phase was still a year away.
“What’s wrong with what I wrote?” I asked.
She sighed heavily, her brooch-dagger heaving with the breath. She said she felt the subject matter was disconcerting and “too mature” to have been cooked up by a 12-year-old. She said the sentence structure was unusual and unlike anything she’d taught us in class.
Where had I learned to break the basic conventions of grammar and punctuation?
I told her Emily Dickinson did it all the time. She told me Dickinson was a poet and not a writer. I told her you could be both. She told me it would be wise if I met with the school psychiatrist. I didn’t understand why. She told me she’d contact my parents to share this suggestion.
I was stunned.
“Because of sentence structure?” I asked.
“Because your stories aren’t typical sixth grade stories,” she said.
I didn’t know what typical sixth grade stories were.
I looked down at my feet again, mortified and angered by the conversation. I had been proud of my work. I had turned it in hoping I’d get an A, not a trip to the school quack.
When I got home that afternoon, I explained the situation to my mother. I don’t remember if she had already received the call from my
concerned demoralizing teacher, but I do recall that when she did, she was appalled by the plagiarizing accusation and baffled by the psychiatry recommendation.
She dismissed them both. She called the school. She explained that her daughter was of sound mental health, a book worm and a lovely writer whose stories she enjoyed, even the wacky ones.
I was never so relieved to be off the hook. I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. My mom assured me I wasn’t crazy. Then she spent the rest of my adolescence supplying me with journals.
She was my first real reader.
PS. The photo is over the cover of my first journal.