The third post in The Education of a Writer (TEW) series.
We all nurse a little insanity in our minds. No matter if we are five or fifty-five. We want to think that the world is not what it is, but yet something different. Something we imagine. That it is our universe. A universe we get to invent, control, and live in.
That was at least the thesis I offered my high school mythology teacher for a final exam.
Lorenzo Michał da Wacław Ponte was your typical mythology instructor — a story-telling machine with a large forehead, white bushy hair, and robotic arms twisting beneath his blue corduroy shirt as he spoke.
He perched his crushing weight on a tiny student desk, legs crossed, casting a shadow over us as he spun his tales of the crippled child-king Tutankhamun making grass grow on the back of a porpoise or how Thor liked to dress as a woman and set things on fire when he sulked.
I knew he was making it all up, every bit of it, and that made the class fascinating. Occasionally someone would argue with him, and he would thunder, “That is how the history books teach it!”
Gives me goose bumps just thinking about it.
I also liked the class because we did not read books. We did not take quizzes. There was no homework. We just sat and listened to Ponte tell us stories he made up.
I finally made total peace with the class (honest, I wanted to learn) when he announced our final exam. Some sort of project. Some epic project we had six weeks to complete. We could build a hammer out of clay. Create a mummy mask out of papier-mâché. Or create our own mythology.
Working with clay sounded like work. Working with papier-mâché sounded like work. But making up my own mythology …
I raised my hand: “You mean just like write it on paper with a pen?”
Mr. Ponte rested his chin on his folded hands. He stared at me for a moment, and then said, “Yes.”
I had a pen. I had paper. I had me an A.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn I waited until the night before my assignment was due to write my mythology. But it didn’t matter. I blazed through five or six pages, describing how the world was birthed by some axe-wielding Norse maniac and his crouch-nuzzling boar, and it went down from there.
I never felt so alive. So useful. So productive. It was the easiest thing I’d ever done. But I never rewrote it. I wrote it once on ruled paper … and I was done. Why shouldn’t I be done? This was fantastic stuff. A far cry from my pathetic poetry. This had structure and poise. An elevated power beyond electricity. The world the way it wasn’t. And my mythology teacher would be sure to recognize my genius.
The following day I handed in the stapled pages by throwing them on the desk when Mr. Ponte was not in the classroom. I did not leave my name on the paper. It wasn’t necessary. He would know who it was. He would know it was me.
Yet, day after day, I never heard back from him. I never heard what he thought. He never gave me advice or instructions or adulation. I sat in the back row each class wondering what he thought.
On the last day of school I peered out at him from under my hood, waiting for him to turn my way and invite me to the front of the class. It never happened.
Turns out it didn’t matter. I passed the class with an A. Perhaps because it was easier for him. He knew I wouldn’t come back if he gave me a passing grade.
I mention this story because you always read about those writers who had a champion growing up … a teacher who recognized their talent and passion for writing, and encouraged them to pursue it. This is not one of those stories. Probably because there wasn’t any talent. What he saw was a meandering mind of someone who let his imagination run rugged. A possible suspect for sheer laziness and self-indulgence.
Again, it didn’t matter. I was seventeen-and-a-half. Behaving like a child. The idea of being a writer nowhere on my radar. I don’t even know if I knew how to write properly. Did I capitalize the right words? Was my verb tense all over the place? Did I confuse “your” for “you’re’?
I often make those mistakes now.
Whatever. He did not encourage me one bit. All I was left was with a taste of something that made me feel insanely alive. But I would have to wait nearly ten years before I got the encouragement I needed (and felt that exhilaration again). And it would come from the person I least expected it.
Next up: “A Fuzzy History of Journals.”