Like everyone else, I started off writing short stories in grade school. I went to a private Catholic School which was actually pretty good when it came to their curriculum. I recall learning to diagram sentences when I was in third grade. Does anyone still do that?
Writing short stories and essays was simply part of my regular school work for as long as I can remember. Those nuns and their handy rulers – God bless ’em – were the overlords and task masters of my early creativity.
I was always happy to get a star stuck to the top right corner of my paper, and I usually got good grades.
Until the fifth grade.
I suppose the teacher has passed away by now, and there would be no harm in mentioning her name. But the fact is, I’d rather not use it. If she had any progeny, they’re likely to be mean and vindictive. Let’s call her “Mrs. ‘A'”. She had assigned a short story for our final exam. We were to write FIVE WHOLE PAGES of creative prose. (What is that in fifth grade cursive? Less than a thousand words I’d guess.) A major part of my grade for English depended on this story.
I had just become enamored of the notion of scuba diving and deep sea exploration. I spent hours reading up on it in the encyclopedia in the library, and watching specials on Walt Disney’s wonderful world of Disney. Regular re-run episodes of “Sea Hunt” and “The Aquanauts” filled my Saturday afternoons.
Suitably inspired, I concocted a story of two young boys who went snorkeling. One was attacked by a barracuda, and the second went to his rescue – turning the attack on himself. He bravely fought off the living buzz saw, but not before being severely injured . He had to be saved by the first boy in return. I truly wish I had kept it. Not because it was particularly good – but because I’ve kept several of my son’s early writings – and I’d like to compare them. I fancy he gets his skill from me, but It’s probably from his mother.
At any rate, I turned in this torrid tale of heroic teen aquatics, safe in the knowledge that I had an easy ‘A’.
When I returned after the weekend, she handed me my pages. All ten of them. (I was on a roll, what can I say?) Marked across the title sheet, in heavy red pencil ~ “YOU DID NOT WRITE THIS! SEE ME AFTER CLASS. F-”
I was stunned. Of course I wrote this. It was in my handwriting. Right there on the page. Who did she think wrote it?
My face burned with shame and humiliation for the next forty minutes. When the bell rang I walked up to her and held out the pages. Before I could say anything she said, “You think you can plagiarize something and I won’t notice?”
Wow. I must have done something really bad. “Plagiarize”… wow. I didn’t even know what that meant. Not only was I bad, I was stupid. I was bad, stupid and speechless. I was charged with a crime that I didn’t understand. I wondered if it was a mortal sin?
“You were supposed to write something all on your own…”
“I did, I wrote this.”
“Shut up and listen to me. No fifth grader writes like this. You copied this from a book somewhere.”
Oh! Okay. ‘Plagiarize’… To copy someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. Got it. Good to know. But … that’s cheating!
“I didn’t copy it!”
“You expect me to believe that YOU wrote this?”
Well… yes. Yes I did. I wrote this. It was good. It was apparently a little too good. Or at least above my grade level. Let’s see, fifth grade… I would have been eleven. So I was writing above my grade level. Well, what did you expect? I was READING above my grade level.
I didn’t cry. But I really didn’t know what to do. How could I prove I had written it? The burden of proof of course, should have lain with her. SHE should have found the alleged source material – and then presented it to me – perhaps in front of Father Arthur the Pastor of our church, or Sister Donald Marie the Principal – yeah, that would have been smart of her.
Instead, she gave me an F minus, and yelled at an eleven year old who couldn’t fight back. She probably felt justified, even RIGHTEOUS in her anger.
She didn’t know righteous anger.
She didn’t know my mother.
I can still see her, walking back and forth in the kitchen, trailing that extra long phone cord my father had installed on the phone. I can’t recall her words. I know she was talking to a ‘Sister’ at one point, and finally “Father” at another. I know she mentioned having SEVEN kids in that damned school. Something about tithes was in there, if I recall correctly. I believe she might have even cursed at some point. Finally she hung up the phone with a sigh, and sat down to light a cigarette.
“I got it changed to a ‘B'” she announced. Then she took a drag, held out her hand and said, “Let me read it.”
So yeah. I learned a thing or two, about critics, and believing in my own work – and having a powerful ally in my corner.
And unconditional love.
Herein resides a jumble of short stories. Some old, some new. Some are bits and pieces of ideas unformed, or something I’ll get to ‘when I have the time’. Some came to me whole, in a dream. Some are little exercises I used to do, what is now called “Flash Fiction” – A nifty phrase for what the nuns used to have us perform. I’ll bet they would have gotten a lot more out of us if they had used that term, “Let’s write FLASH FICTION…” That sounds so cool, so futuristic!
I’ll try and illustrate them. Either with something I’ve photographed or photo-shopped or better still with some original work I might wrangle from one of my many artistic friends. If I can afford the pizza and beer.
Artists guzzle beer.
Open a cool one, and read on.
All stories and images copyright Richard P. Alvarez unless otherwise labeled.