It is nineteen-eighty-something. I am sitting easy in tenth-grade English, my insides more sullen than my exterior portrays. This is rare for me; I seem to have a direct feed from my heart to my face, so that my expression nearly always announces the storm or still in my chest. At this point in my life, I am unaware what a handicap this is.
In fact, I’m acutely unaware of that aspect of myself until much later on down the line.
Ms. Reid hands out stacks of journals, four of us dispersing them into random hands and the other fourteen shuffling, trading, passing until each speckled composition book finds the owner of the contents seated between its covers. It is a ritual that we never planned on, this haphazard retrieval of words, and it happens every school day for four years. How many degrees of separation do our words find themselves subject to until they are returned to us? How many people lay hands or eyes on them before they come home?
In Ms. Reid’s class there is potential for eighteen pairs to do so, and in truth Mrs. Reid can be counted twice because she will lay both hands and eyes on them before dutifully returning them to their respective owners each day.
I am compelled to go against the grain, to not be what anybody expects on any given day. This is not to say that I am difficult as a rule, but there are indeed times when I am wildly driven to dig in my heels for no other purpose than –by the force of my will– to dent the space I am occupying.
This is a Tuesday and this is one of those times.
“Okay,” Ms. Reid says. She barely reached her old lectern so she had her husband make her a new one. Smaller ones weren’t imposing enough, she explained to me via letter later on when I was a continent away, they were too childlike and flimsy looking. Thus she found it necessary to commission Charles for the building of a petite yet monstrous podium. Even then she had to wear three-inch pumps to make it mostly convincing.
“No freewriting today.”
(I once received swooning, gushy words for the lyrics to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. Swooning, gushy words written in a perfect, windswept hand –in case you are unaware– are approximately fourteen-hundred times better than the same rendered in a messy, ink-smudged fashion. Really, the only time that those sorts of words should be messy is when they are whispered sloppily, ardently, into a panting lover’s ear.
To this day I have not confessed my bold-faced plagiarism of righteous classic rock. How can I? Mrs. Reid was so in love with that notebook page. Besides, I’m holding both the story and the apology in reserve for when they ask me to speak at her funeral someday. HOPEFULLY AN UN-SOON SOMEDAY.)
“Today I want you to tell me a Truth.” We all know what she means, except for the twins. Not those twins, the wry and funny girls I count as two of the best friends I will ever know….the other set. It consists of the alien and indecipherable George and Geoff.
Their brains are on a higher plane, and it is one where basic English is basic gobbledygook and everything has to be spoon-fed to them. Granted, George is worse-off than Geoff in this department: He requires three times the explaining, so that even his brother will grow exasperated with him, berating him in their heavy, clipped personal tongue. They will go on, in all their stilted oddness, to audition for MTV. They will create art that can be considered frightening when viewed in the context of the knowledge I carry about their early years. They will never fully learn the give any kind of shit about the language of this plane.
I purse my lips. I am Contrary Personified. I look at the blank page, defying it to speak to the place where my hard consonants keep watch at the door. I AM NOT SOME CHEAP, MONKEY-DANCING, PENCILGEEK SHILL. And I don’t know where I stand on Truths, because glomming onto one of them too hard will fuck your day up at some point in your life. This is what I think I know, even at sixteen. This is what I will continue to maybe-know later on, too.
::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::
We stand ringing the truth, our mouths expectant. Everyone has an opinion on it.
“That can’t possibly be the truth! The truth is shorter than that, and it makes grunting noises when it walks.”
“I know this is the truth, because my aunt showed it to me when I stayed with her the summer before last.”
“I’ve never seen a Truth that looked like that.”
“Let’s let it loose and see what happens.”
“I say we vote on whether or not this is the truth.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible,” I say, “Truth is different to everyone. We could all stand here describing it all day long, extensive interviews could be conducted by The Powers That Be and at the end of the day they’ll have eighteen differing versions lined up. We will have gotten nowhere.”
They all turn on me, varying degrees of savage showing on their faces. A couple are clenching their fists, ready to let them fly should I let that statement stand. The truth can’t be nothing.
The truth is always something. Wait, isn’t it?
::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::
Impertinently and carefully, I use exactly one line to say
There are no truths, only experiences.
and wait there quietly with my journal open on my desk for a respectable amount of time before dropping it into the basket on Ms. Reid’s desk. She passes it back to me the next day, and in red felt-tip ink she has penned her curt displeasure, ‘Then you should have written about an experience.‘ There is a fat red circle at the top of the page, because fat red circles are the scholarly hallmark of assholey teenage behavior.
::: :: ::: :: ::: :: ::: :: :::
Two years after the fat red circle I am called forward in front of some two-hundred(ish) students. Intermingled with them are faculty and parents. Out of those two-hundred –all of them about to graduate– I have been selected to receive the Senior prose writing award. It is printed on stiff vellum and has an eagle, our school mascot, embossed at the top. It is unexpected, this certificate, and I am pleased to have received it. However, lyrics to ‘Stairway To Heaven’ notwithstanding, I am unsurprised.
I receive two other awards related to academics, these I expect. I am about as indifferent to them as I could possibly be.
The fourth time my name is called, my brows fly up in a startle. I’ve been given the Senior government award. I am stunned.
After the ceremony, Mr. Lee finds my mother.
“I’ll tell you, Mrs. Superior, Jett wadn’t always my most driven student. Hell, she wadn’t always my most awake one. When she was awake and involved, she lit a fire under those other kids, and she stirred some terrific discussions, kept things rolling. There are a few reasons why I gave your daughter this award, but the two most distinct ones are that she never was afraid to speak her piece, and she never was afraid of hearing somebody’s else’s, either. Ma’am, she was not the most accomplished of my students, but I can assure you that she is the most promising of all of them.” I think my mother treasures his words more than any other thing she’s ever heard about me in her life. I feel like she has never been more thrilled with me than she is in this moment.
Twenty-one impossible years later, on a stifling July day, I will find out I was right. I will find Mr. Lee’s words written on a piece of paper and clipped carefully to the government award, which I gifted to my mother the night I won it. I will marvel that she thought to write them down where I would surely be able to find them one day.
It will set a blaze of fierce warmth and self-confidence in my belly.