SOL #13 A memory from 9th grade composition

“On the gruff exterior, …” began the short description. It was an assignment for 9th grade composition. I was 14. I remember I had chosen the shop teacher whom I didn’t know personally as my subject. He was an older white man with silvery short hair that had a neat part on the right side. I would see him move around school with a hush and a hum. He was efficient somehow and quiet like a shadow. I wondered if anyone really knew him. Although to write my description I must have known something about him because in the text he turned out to be surprisingly calm and warm. Perhaps as he worked with his hands or demonstrated how to use a tool. I cannot remember.

Now nearly 40 years later, I cannot recall the man’s name and how we were connected, only the words I used to begin to paint his picture. Gruff exterior. It was so fitting and was part of the reason that I was asked to join an advanced English class in the next semester. I suppose this was one of those moments when my affinity for words surprised some people. I, the Black girl who was so … articulate, who used words like gruff and exterior to describe a person. My committed white teachers didn’t see that coming.

In fact, it was not the first time I stood out for my writing acumen. As an 8th grader I won a 1979 savings bond for an award winning essay “America – What It Means To Me”. The contest was sponsored by the Ladies Auxillary of Polish American Veterans Legion. Nowadays we would say I nailed it. I served up just the right portion of patriotism and exceptionalism, found the right words to say we’re the best without ever saying “We’re the best.” I don’t think I was being manipulative. I’m pretty sure I believed everything I wrote. When the award was presented to me at an end-of-the-year ceremony, the Polish American lady who called my name nearly fainted when this skinny Black girl rose to claim the prize. (My mother told me this afterwards. I didn’t register the reaction myself.)

Ah, these memories, at once funny and worthy of a good sigh, they run circles around my head. I have always known the joy of words, always found power in tossing them up and catching them in different orders. That this has been a source of dismay for others has a history, one wider and deeper than my personal one. No matter, the pleasures of literacy fill me up and hold me tight, keep me calm and warm, while my exterior need not grow gruff.

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5 thoughts on “SOL #13 A memory from 9th grade composition

  1. I enjoyed reading this, your writing memories. Loved, “found the right words to say we’re the best, without ever saying, “We’re the best.” My parents stressed to me to never boast, even when a supervisor askes me to share what’s great, I try to find words that speak the truth without sounding like outright bragging. Ah, “the joy of words”.

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  2. What memories, and what description! I can see the teacher you mention in my minds eye. I also love the line, “I have always known the joy of words, always found power in tossing them up and catching them in different orders.” Beautiful.

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  3. This sentence is glorious, and I wish I’d written it: “I have always known the joy of words, always found power in tossing them up and catching them in different orders.”

    Maybe it’s what I’m reading; maybe it’s that I’ve been turning your post from a few days ago around in my head; maybe it’s my own worry about who will replace me next year, but I had a sinking feeling about what I expected you to say near the end.

    I have a brilliant black young man in AP Lit, but this is the first time he’s been in an honors level English class, and I am angry, have been angry all year because someone should have recognized his brilliance before I did last year. Someone should have expected this amazing student to be brilliant. No one should nearly faint when a POC demonstrates brilliance. We should all expect it and see it as normal.

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    1. Dear Glenda,
      Thank you for hearing me and seeing connections in your own experience. I’m sure it must be maddening to know that this young man now in your classroom has been ready for advanced challenges for probably much longer. At the same time, he has at least been seen and can now be encouraged to recognize his own capabilities. And maybe this is key, one strong teacher may be all it takes. Believe me when I say that when you are already the unexpected achiever, you cling to those experience where your accomplishments are no longer a surprise. You remember deeply those adults who were able to see and appreciate your spark, your light and your drive and you carry those memories with you a very long way.
      I dip into the anthology “Black Ink” where Black authors tell their stories of reading and writing in America and there I find so many stories about powerful teachers who listened and prodded, who held high expectations and made a critical difference. Also, “The Well-Read Black Girl Anthology” is another great source of these stories. So I understand your anger and pray that your replacement will be as tuned in to the work that needs to be done ( and undone) as you have been. I’m glad for this young Black man in your classroom, to know that he will have the benefit of your watchful eye probably well after he has left your school.

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