The Coddington school principal stopped in at the Bagaduce market one day this summer and read some of my essays. They have them on display at the check-out counter there. The folks at the store gave him my phone number and he called me the week before school opened to ask if I’d be willing to tutor a student in creative writing. He was thinking of a twelve-year-old girl named Renée who has shown real promise as a writer. He thought it would be great to set up a mentoring relationship for her with some local writer and asked me if I could do this. As he was talking, I thought of a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t say yes to this proposal. But then I thought of what life was like for me as a schoolboy and I couldn’t say no.
When I was in eighth grade, I was taught by a nun who had sixty-five Irish, French and Polish second-generation immigrant children in her class. Her job was to broadcast knowledge as best she could, to make sure we were all paying attention and to mete out discipline to any kid who chose not to get with this program. I made my way as best I could through this command and control system of teaching but felt pretty much out of step with it all.
Explore creative writing? Not in that school. Not in those days. In my grammar school, you could never admit to being different in the slightest way, even if you felt you were different in many ways. To hope for something more than what the system was prepared to offer was to get seriously out of line. And being an outlier came with consequences. “Who do you think you are?” you’d be asked, in front of everyone else. And that, of course, was exactly the issue for me. I really hadn’t a clue as to who I was. I only knew that I was eager to find out who I might be, and become. I knew also that I didn’t seem to be quite like anybody else — or everybody else, for that matter. I developed my own way of doing things which often got me into trouble. For example, I sometimes fell behind because I developed the habit of reading slowly, almost dreamily. This gave me the chance to think not only about what the author had written, but also about why the writer wrote it, why this word was used, why that particular phrase was chosen and not another.
From early on in school I learned to hide out. You weren’t allowed to be critical of the system; you were expected, instead, to be grateful for what you were given. I kept a low profile and my own counsel. I also kept in a corner of my youthful heart some resentments of an education where so little attention could be paid and where conformity seemed to trump creativity every time. Such misgivings tend to settle over the years, but you carry a residue of regret even as you leave your childhood behind.
So, I had a strong reason for saying yes to the principal’s proposal: I was eager to offer a receptive student something that I once wanted and needed but couldn’t have. And for all the same reasons, I wanted to say no to the principal’s request: I feared that I might bring too much of my own baggage to the tutoring, that I might project too much of my own ambivalent self on this unsuspecting young person. “Don’t ask me my age,” wrote Alphonse Allais, “It changes all the time.” That’s my inner life in a nutshell. I could see myself trying too hard with this student to make things better than what I once had. What a formula for disaster! In the end, I said yes to the proposal. I figured it was my job to be the adult in the room. It was about time that I took the energy of those latent resentments and applied it to offering kindness and encouragement to an eighth grader who, I strongly suspected, would remind me of myself at that tender age.
The day of the tutorial session, I made sure I arrived just before the appointed time. The principal had set us up in a spare room which doubled as his workroom. He apologized that he might be coming in and out during our tutorial. That was fine with me; having someone else in the room might take a little pressure off this initial session. At the appointed time, Renée walked through the door and sat down across the table from me. She seemed a lovely, dark-haired girl with an intelligent face. In her eyes I thought I could see an openness, even a guarded eagerness, perhaps, for what the session might bring her. I was suddenly filled with admiration for her and her wary hopefulness. “Thank God for the resiliency of youth,” I thought.
We introduced ourselves. I told her a little about my background and she spoke happily of her family and of her cats. When I handed her a couple of essays I’d written on my own coon cat’s adventures, she seemed genuinely pleased. I asked her to tell me something of herself as a writer. She looked at me cautiously and said, “Well, I’m kind of different.” “How so?” I asked. “Well,” she said, “I don’t like writing happy endings. That’s what I’m expected to do, but I don’t always see things that way.”
That was it. That was the breakthrough. To Renée I said, “Hurrah for you!” To myself I thought: “Hurrah for you, Renée, hurrah for having the courage to share that you feel different. Hurrah for already understanding that life is not simply a chronicle of happy endings. Hurrah for having a writer’s instinct to know that addressing life’s inconsistencies and ambivalences and pain is far more interesting than attempting to concoct pleasing stories of contrived happiness.
The tutoring session took off from there. We talked about keeping a writer’s notebook, about voice and perspective and focus of narration. We spoke of humor and of dramatic tension, of reading one’s writing aloud and of the merits and drawbacks of writing from an outline. I shared a little from one of my essays and Renée read a piece she wrote about a girl who could never make up her mind.
And then, it was over. We agreed on an assignment for next time. Renée sped off to class. The principal had already gone. I sat alone, gathering my materials, a little uncertain as to how this would all turn out. Nonetheless, I thought, a start had been made, an unexpected gift had been given. A young person at an age where fitting in is one of life’s constant pressures found the courage to acknowledge that she saw things differently from the rest of her world and was determined to write about it. She administered this unconscious youthful blessing to a stranger who was trying to be the adult in the room, and who made an acceptable job of it, despite some ancient wounds.
Edward R. Dufresne © 2012