I’ve always been a bit of an overachiever, reaching above and beyond, grasping after what someone less ambitious might ignore.
Sometimes it’s a blessing.
Other times, a curse.
In either case, a duty to be dealt with. Winning was what mattered, after all. (Or so I’ve sometimes thought.)
This striving harder, diving deeper, never settling for second best was behavior well-established by the time I trudged, pixie-headed, into first grade—yellow rubber boots over navy Lady Janes—bundled in a nubby winter coat Kimmy’d purchased at Kaufman’s the fall before. (“Kimmy” was what we called my paternal grandmother.)
I was dressed for success, dressed to endure.
My teacher was Miss Peach. Nearing retirement age, she was petite but pudgy, doughy as unbaked biscuits—short gray curls set perfectly in place. Miss Peach was as jovial as she was full of fat and excess flesh. She enforced few rules, so that we first graders were, as a whole, more foot lose and fancy free than straight-laced, prim and proper.
I remember loving the “Sally, Dick, and Jane” books—a perfect world I could fall into during reading groups, while the rest of the class completed “seat work” outlined on a black board. The world Dick and Jane inhabited felt cozy and carefree—one where spilt milk and muddy feet were readily forgiven, where a kitten named Puff fluffed stories into fun. I didn’t read well aloud, but well enough to mostly maintain my place in the top reading group and develop a love of narrative, it neatness—the predictability of pages turned, the order found in books.
However, way worse than my oral reading remained my penmanship, which was, in fact, pathetic at best. It seemed the notion of neatness and legibility in this arena meant little if anything to me, so much so I wonder now if anyone even bothered to explain that the goal of printing was communication—that what one wrote others were meant to read and comprehend.
That is until Miss Peach held a contest of sorts.
One day in the dead of winter, Pittsburgh piled high with dirty snow, streets full of freezing slush, we arrived at our corner classroom to find Miss Peach perched atop a wooden chair in front of the black board, carefully printing a paragraph-long letter to the principal.
When we had put away our coats and hats, mittens and scarves, when we finally sat, hands folded in nearly neat rows, Miss Peach announced the competition scheduled to play out that day, a drama in our classroom smelling of wet wool and pencil shavings. For seat work that morning, we were supposed to practice our penmanship, copying the letter looming on the board. Whoever, reproduced it with the most perfect printing would get to carry their letter across the hall and deliver it in-person to the principal.
For me, suddenly, practice required perfection, and I decided I would win. If it were merely a matter of copying exactly what was on the board, I determined I could do it well enough, that there was no reason not to take the trophy trip across the hall—perfect printing for the principal.
So, all that morning, I muddled at my desk, thick blue pencil clutched in cramping fingers. I copied, erased, copied and erased some more, until finally the letters marched a military precision—parading print across the page.
Then that afternoon, following a lunch of cheese sandwich on white bread, Miss Peach, wearing an emerald polyester dress, announced what I’d expected all along—
Indeed, my letter was the best. Indeed, I had won the printing prize.
In that moment and the moments after as I imagined dancing across the hall, the notion of writing, even in its most rudimentary form, became a goal of mine. I fell in love with the printed word, and by implication fell in love with writing itself—the notion of imitating what I saw—whether what was on a black board or unfolding all around me.
That cold afternoon as frost formed on outside surfaces, as it crept across our classroom windows, I understood the correlation between cause and effect, the literary implications of effort and reward—a tundra of story left glinting in the glass.
Note: If you are new to my blog, you might like to know that I am writing a memoir and blogging about growing up in an organized crime family. (This post, though not about the mafia specifically, is part of that series.) To read one of my mafia-related memoir posts,”Kids Make the Best Bookies,” click here. If you are interested in reading any of my protected posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or let me know in the comments below, and I will gladly share the password with you.
(Note: We will update Sara’s Photo-a-Day Project in a special post a couple of weeks from now. We are still working out the details.)