The summer ended, I had turned thirteen, and I wasn’t being shipped back to Alabama. Oh no. A school year was going to start and I’d be with my parents. Nothing at all I could do about it. I felt like a hostage.
We had moved closer into town and away from the levee. The house was a big place with a fireplace in the master bedroom and on the other side of the wall in the living room, though we never used them. The rooms circled so that you could walk clear from the living room, through the bedroom, through the hall where a door opened on a bathroom, through another bedroom, through the dining room, and find yourself back in the living room. It made for great fun when Brent and I played chase, but it was a bad set-up when Mama and Daddy used it, going round and round, drunk as skunks and threatening to kill one another.
The first day of school I was brought to the class by the principal. When he left the teacher asked me to stand in front of the class and introduce myself. Most schools made me do this and I thought about running away from home a hundred times just so I wouldn’t have to go stand in front of a new class in a new school.
“I’m Billie Sue Stahl,” I said.
The teacher’s head jerked down to look at my transfer papers. “Uh, what’s your parents’ names?” she asked, confused.
I hesitated. “Leroy and Yvonne Smith.”
Her head jerked up again. “Your name isn’t Smith?”
Now my face was turning red and the kids were all glued to this minor drama. People in the 1950s didn’t divorce nearly as often as they did later and most children had both their original parents at home.
“No, my name is Stahl. My Mama got married again.”
I didn’t want them to think I was illegitimate. It’s funny how when you’re young what appears to be a small thing turns out to be one of the biggest things of all. What today is considered the norm was in those days an aberration. Being a child of divorced parents made you a pariah. You couldn’t have much of an upbringing if you didn’t have your own mother and father. Totally Un-Normal.
“Oh, I see, a divorcee,” the teacher said with a smirk in her voice and a rising pitch on the “cee.”
I slunk back to my assigned desk and wished I could disappear into a crack in the floor. I’d have rather been anywhere than in that classroom with that teacher. She had been just about as cruel as anyone had ever been to me. I wasn’t going to like this school.
I excelled in it, nevertheless. I’d been in quite a few Texas schools where a new experimental reading and teaching program was being tested. We were put into individual cubicles and given books to read and papers to fill out. I’ve never seen such a program in a school like it since, but they should have kept it because it worked. Those schools were so superior to other schools in the South that I’d always come into a class way ahead of the other students when attending schools in other states.
One day in English we were told for homework to write a paper about someone we admired. At home I thought and thought. I decided on Bigdaddy. There were so many facets to Bigmama, I didn’t think I could capture her in words yet.
I wrote a paper eight or nine pages long. I already was a budding novelist—wordy. Once the words began to come, they poured like Morton Salt.
I thought we were going to turn the papers in to the teacher, but the next day in class she asked for volunteers to read the assignment. I slipped down in my chair and began to shake. I wasn’t going to have to read this aloud to everyone, was I?
Oh, that would just be a kill-shot--might as well stand me in front of the room naked as make me read about my country grandfather. I had written about how he could blow songs on peach leaves, how he let me follow him to milk the cow and taught me how to do it, how he would stand up and do a little Irish jig and sing some silly song when he felt happy. How he drove his old gray pickup truck fast up a hill and then turned off the ignition and let the truck roll down to the bottom, thinking he was saving gas.
I could not possibly read it aloud. I’d be ostracized forever. This was a city school. These were city kids who had probably never even seen a cow, much less milked one. They would make fun of me for the rest of the year if I read my paper to them. I’d never be able to hold my head up again.
I began to get sick to my stomach and wanted to vomit. I slunk lower in the seat and wouldn’t look the teacher in the eye after each student finished a paper and she was about to call on another classmate. Don’t call on me, I kept thinking as a litany. Ring bell, let us out of here, don’t call on me.
I ended up last. But there was plenty of time left in the class period. The other kids’ papers had been short little paragraphs, nothing much, nothing heartfelt. We were all thirteen-year-olds and not expected to write a great paper.
My paper was pages and pages long! I had no idea how to shorten it with the teacher watching me read. It would take me forever and I wanted to die, absolutely wanted to fall out right there on the floor and die, that being a preferable fate.
“Billie Sue? It’s your turn. You’re last.”
Oh dear God. I stumbled to the lectern she had set up for us and placed the pages on it. I kept my head down, bangs covering my eyes. I drew a deep breath and said what the hell, they hate me already anyway, what’s the difference, and I began to read what I’d written.
This taught me when there’s no way out of something, just put down your head and bull your way through. It will kill you or it won’t so just do it.
By the end tears stood in my eyes. I judged the story of My Most Admirable Person against what the others would think. It was backwoods and downhome stupid. I might as well have written ALABAMA HICK on my forehead for all to see.
The last words came from my mouth. The room was, and had been, completely silent. Not a sound but my cracking voice reading about Bigdaddy.
I looked up, prepared to go into full throttle bawling and suddenly the entire class exploded into spontaneous applause!
I staggered back at the surprise of it. My eyes went wide and my mouth fell open. They applauded and yelled and applauded some more. I didn’t know what was going on. Their faces didn’t appear to be the faces of kids playing a joke. I looked for the makings of a cruel joke and couldn’t find it. They were smiling and they loved me for what I had written. How could that be? What alternate universe had I been dropped into?
The teacher walked to me and took the pages from my hands. She looked over them a minute as the applause faded. Then she said something that would embed the dart of writing ambition even deeper into my heart. She said, “This is tremendous writing. It’s better than my eleventh grade students can do. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m going to show it to the eleventh grade as an example of good writing, is that all right with you, Billie Sue?”
A teacher was asking my permission for something. The world had gone nuts. The kids were looking at me with envy and love. The teacher was telling me what I’d written about my country grandfather was better than anything she had seen written in her years of teaching school.
I would be a writer one day! I knew it now. If I could take my country grandfather and write well enough about him to inspire spontaneous applause from a group of hardened city kids ready and willing to humiliate anyone not like them…well that was really something! If I could write it well enough to surprise a teacher so much she fawned over me in front of everyone, then, by god, one day I’d write well enough to be published. I’d tell the whole wide world about Bigdaddy and his peach leaves. About Bigmama and her aprons.
About Mama and her sprees.
One day I would, I swore it.
And finally I have.
It takes very little encouragement to keep most writers writing. An essay in a schoolroom that goes over well. A rejection with a personal note attached. A writer you admire writing you a letter to tell you to keep working at it, you’ve got a little something-something and it’s going to shine one day.
The ego needs very little stroking. Against all rejection and dismissal a writer can continue by remembering one kind word, one small kindness. I can recall the sea of young faces in that classroom even today in my memory. Despite their natural tendencies to belittle or raze their peers, I had won them over. Winning over a room full of disbelievers and naysayers can go a long way in giving a writer hope.
Since I was thirteen when I wrote the essay and thirteen when I wrote in my diary about wanting to grow up to be a writer, it’s probable this one event at school caused me to go home and write down my secret wish. I wouldn’t tell anyone about that wish for another five years when I began trying to write short stories at age eighteen, but I must have decided right then and there this is what I wanted. I wanted to affect people with my stories, true or fictional. I wanted them to applaud and to love what I’d written. It was my fondest desire. The little flame had been ignited and would carry me through the long years ahead. Writing, I discovered, was a journey, not a destination. I’d fall off the horse along the path. I’d run into brambles and lose my way. I’d be alone and most people wouldn’t understand what I was doing or why I was doing it.
Yet at the end of it, with some piece of work here and there, I might reach another audience and their silent applause would carry me even further and cause me to try harder, to write truer, to open myself to whatever came from the effort, be it humiliation or praise. Reading before classmates taught me to be brave, to wade in with whatever I’ve got even if I think it’s not the right work to get approval, even if I worry it might be found lacking—even when I am so afraid I physically shake and feel sick. It taught me something else. If you are sincere and real, not a dishonest or pretentious word in your work, people respond with love.
We are all so alike. Those teens in the classroom were different from me, they were city and I was country, they had both original parents in their home and I did not, they were friends and I was a stranger, but I touched them with the story of my grandfather because we were really the same. They understood love, they understood family, they were stirred by feelings they probably couldn’t even describe.
I learned the most valuable lesson of all about the majesty and power of the written word. It was truly mightier than the sword. I hoped to be fortunate enough to write all the days of my life…and I have.