***When I was in the third grade, one of my favorite songs was Piano Man. It was released the year I was born, and must have already been in heavy rotation on the oldies station by the time third grade rolled around. My parents were huge Billy Joel fans, and I would hear the record at home and ask that the radio be turned up when it came on in the car. There came a day when I was fairly certain that I had memorized all of the lyrics, and to be sure, decided to write them down. Stanzas and line breaks were unknown to me, but stories were not. And as this song surely had narrative qualities, I wrote the lyrics like this:
It's nine o'clock on a Saturday, regular crowd shuffles in. There's an old man sitting next to me, making love to his tonic and gin. He says, "Son can you play me a melody [note: I always got that word wrong, in the actual lyrics it is "memory"] I'm not really sure how it goes, but it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete, when I wore a younger man's clothes." etc etc.Now, I have always craved acknowledgment for my achievements. So invariably I showed this to a teacher. I remember one in particular who I surely waved it in front of: Patty. (I went to a very progressive school back then, the teachers had no last names, there were no grades, and children were allowed to torture each other with great machinations of cruelty as long as they were creative machinations.)
Patty was my teacher in the second grade when I was new to the progressive hippie-commie school; and after second grade, she remained my Base Station teacher (somewhat like home room). As such, she dealt with me first thing every morning up until the seventh grade when I was dragged away from my excellent school to a horrible preppy school out in the boring suburbs by my cruel anti-creativity minded parents. Over my years there, Patty indulged all manner of crazy ideas of mine. She let me write and teach a puppetry class to third graders when I had reached the ripe old age of ten. And at eleven she let me be an assistant coach to the second grade soccer class--despite my not knowing how to play soccer or even liking to play soccer, but simply because I liked to play at coaching.
Patty, in short, liked me. I showed Patty what I had written. Now, as a third grader I didn't know the difference between penned and written in pencil. Since the song was played on the radio all the goddamned time, I can't imagine that I would have tried to pass it off as an original, but I had moments of deviousness and deviancy as a child, so who knows. What I do remember fairly well is that Patty thought that I wrote Piano Man. And in looking back through the hazy and warped past, I don't remember understanding that there was a misunderstanding until a long time later, like years. Like one day in junior high algebra, in a lame-ass blue collar, sporty, churchy, boring gray cube of a building far from all the fun of downtown, all of a sudden I was all Wow! she thought I WROTE that.
At the time, all I remember is her heaping some praise upon me, which was a-ok with me, Bub. It would turn out later to be quite possibly a contributing factor to the ruining of my life.
A year later, when several of the kids in my class were singled out for "special opportunities" I hoped and, ok I didn't ever pray, but I really really wished that I would be sent to an off-campus art class. All of us at this pinko grade school were "gifted" but some of us graded as extra potentialed--in need of further nurturing--lest our little stars wink out before they'd had a chance to fully shine.
The kids who were especially special (or who knows, the ones who's parents paid a few extra bucks? my family was pretty broke by then, so unlikely, but my mom shelled out for art classes not infrequently back then...?) went to one class a week at another school. The really popular girls were going to end up in dance classes, and maybe some boys would go to science or engineering classes, but I had also heard that there were drawing and painting classes.
There was another girl with artistic tendencies in my grade, Shawna. She had the longest fingernails ever, and while they weren't especially beautiful, they were admirable in their length. She was also more popular than me, and all of the popular girls felt that she was the artist among us. At my old school, where I had gone until the depth of my giftedness (manifested primarily in acting out and sass-mouthing) was officially recognized, I had been the artist. In first grade, kids wanted me to draw on their notebooks or add features to their larger pictures (for example, a fire breathing dragon, or a puppy). Here, kids asked Shawna, who was usually too busy having a million friends.
I felt certain, that if only I were sent to an art class, then they would all think that I too (or, ideally, only) was artistic. This possible art class was the key to my fame.
Then, finally, the day came and we got our assignments. Shawna went to a drawing class, and I was sent to creative writing. I cried all afternoon.
Writing was about as cool as math. Which is to say not very. They may as well have said, please go take this class in how to organize shoes by size. Careful, the mules are tricky, they have half sizes. It was so humiliating. I went to the class, which was full by the way, of not one single cool person, I was positive. I did not want to become anyone's friend or in any way excel. I would spend as much of the class time drawing princesses and unicorns in the margins as possible. And do my best not to learn anything.
This was the first time that writing ruined my life. What I will never know, is if it was precipitated by a well-meaning but clueless hippie thinking I wrote a Billy Joel song, or not.
***Still plodding, slowly and painfully forward on the glacier essay. I read the most amazing short story yesterday, twice. George Saunders "Puppy" It's one of the best things I've read in... ever. I read it on the bus ride to work and then had to read it again on the bus ride home. I'm reading it again tonight.