Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Back in high school, in the era of the first George Bush, I wasn’t really aware of anything like "potential" in my abilities. I didn’t think of myself as horribly smart until after I took the SATs, and then there was no stopping me. In fact, I have no idea what I thought about at the beginning of high school. I walked to school each day, my eyes always angled toward the sidewalk, looking askance. I rode my skateboard every day, helped friends build ramps from two-by-fours and plywood, and rode around the city with my best friend and his brother in search of the perfect concrete drainage ditches. I don’t think I thought much about school—except when I was planning to stay home to read and watch cable. In fact, I missed a lot of school. I was a sickly kid—asthmatic, plagued by upper respiratory infections, and constantly wary of oak trees and other allergies. In retrospect, I find it difficult to imagine that I was really that sick. Maybe, instead, I was a little sick of myself and a little sick of the drudgery of a very good public school.

Regardless of the reasoning, or lack thereof, I missed more than enough classes to fail my first semester of sophomore English. Of course, even with 22 absences over a 6-week period and the occasional visit by a truant officer, I still could have passed if I’d made up my work. In fact, I passed every other class during that term. Unfortunately, the prospect of trudging through A Separate Peace and scribbling a five-paragraph paper about the violence of New England prep schools stood in my way.

The next year, as a junior, I got bumped down to the "regular" version of English. The same teacher taught the honors section, with essentially the same curriculum: American Lit. Within a month, she’d pulled me aside to ask if I wanted to move into the honors section. I didn’t. Even now, I remember the class as one of the most pleasant courses I’ve ever taken. The class was arranged in a semi-circle, like any workshop, and I sat near the back of the room at the outer edge of the circumference of uniform desks. Most days, I would lay my head down, angled so that I could see my textbook and simply listen. The discussion would ebb and flow as our teacher teased knowledge from the other students, making them realize themes in Poe or Hawthorne that they hadn’t suspected they’d understood. But most of the time, they understood, and in those moments when the dialogue would stutter to a halt, I’d lift my head and offer an answer—allowing the discussion to regain its natural rhythm.

Of course, when I was in graduate school, I never told a single student that story, but in retrospect, maybe I should have. In that antediluvian failure, I can still see aspects of myself now. Regardless of how lucky I was that I’d stumbled across my mom’s volume of Poe when I was 12, choosing not to put a pen to paper left me as a failure.

I think, more so today than ever, writers face twin demons: fear of success and fear of failure. They intertwine, like the snakes on Mercury’s staff, leaving us prone and sedate. For me, I’m still working, mumble-mumble years after that first inexcusable faux pas, to slay those serpents. Or rather, I’m trying to train them, sating them now and again with a feast of despair or resignation while I make a transitory escape. Hopefully, one day I can teach them to sic agents and editors, but in the meanwhile, they only have fangs for me.


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