Monday, December 21, 2009

Mentors, Muses & Monsters Finalist: Merry Monteleone

First impressions are bullshit. You hear all the time about making a good first impression, but the truth is that your first thoughts on a place or a person are the sanitized version of what they are on the outside. How poetic that the first impression of my high school was the smell of bleach mixed with the subtle waft of guilt and the staccato click of heels on faux marble floors.

My aunt opened the door to the Assistant Principal’s office, waving me in. As I made my way carefully past, she grabbed hold of my arm and whispered in my ear, “I had to tell them you were from a broken home.”

The last two words resonated, they came out the way you’d make an excuse or tell a lie. I couldn’t see how it would be more broken if you took a chainsaw to it, but I didn’t think it would be a good idea to point that out, so I nodded in that conspiratorial way.

My aunt waited outside while I sat alone in Assistant Principal’s office, figuring I was in for something. She eyed me from behind her desk, and then walked sure-footed around the room to sit directly in front of me. Her skirt didn’t move, like cardboard fitted around a lithe frame as she folded her arms and waited. For what, I had no idea.

Finally she said, “You’re not what I expected.”

“What – am I too cute to be a delinquent?”

Okay, I didn’t say it. It’s the way I’d love to write it in fiction, though. I wasn’t quite nervy enough to be that obnoxious to adults. That was my first meeting with Ms. I, and I knew, just knew, the woman had my number. She had this way of looking at you that made you want to confess things you didn’t even do but, more than that, it laid you bare. There was nothing hidden in you that her well-placed glare couldn’t prod until it choked you with the effort to keep your blasted secrets down.

Once I started classes, I realized that most of the students never saw Ms. I. The Principal did announcements and assemblies. The Dean dealt with demerits and lapses in uniform (Catholic school, for the devout or devious, take your pick). Ms. I, well, she was the heavy – called in for serious discipline problems. Most of my friends only knew her by sight, and the fact that she knew my name was usually greeted by loud gulps and that “Damn, I’d hate to be you” look.

I had a fondness for debate, especially with the religion teachers – my very favorite win was when a teacher my freshman year ended a theological argument with me by saying, “I’m right because I can give you a detention”. I wore combat boots with my little plaid skirt. I was a regular pain in the ass, I was, and yet I managed to make a good number of friends, when I wasn’t hiding out with my sketchpad in the art room.

After school, a bunch of us would sometimes hang out at one of the hamburger joints a few blocks away. We’d play cards and drink sodas and sometimes get cheese fries. I walked my friend, Candy, home after one such excursion. We were school friends and I’d never been to her house before. We walked in the back door and this Amazon of a monster that turned out to be her mother grabbed Candy by the throat and slammed her into the wall so hard she cracked the ceramic tile with her head.

It’s a funny kind of guilt you get from walking away from something like that. I stood out in the alley for what seemed like forever, staring up at her window, wondering what the hell I was supposed to do. And it seemed like you had to wait for your friend to make that call, it was her family and I couldn’t very well go after her mom. But walking away, man, I can still feel it, that sense of impotence that gnaws its way from your tonsils to your toes. A normal person might have called the police or something. I kind of went by the fight or flight principle and doing the normal thing sounded so wrong in my ears.

There were other things going on with Candy, too, but her story isn’t my story and I feel funny elaborating too much here for fear of hitting too close. It’s enough to say that she had a rough way to go. I don’t think anyone at school knew how bad it had gotten for her. You don’t see those things in high school. You see what’s in front of you, not what’s in front of anyone else.

In our sophomore year, Candy wound up on some bad paper at school. She had to check in about her grades and she had a lot of stress about paying the tuition, because she was working two jobs to pay it herself. Added to all of this, a group of seniors decided to make her life miserable. They cornered Candy at her locker more than once, caught her in the bathroom, knocked into her on the stairs. They spread nasty rumors about her, inside and outside of school. And they generally made a bad situation about twenty thousand times worse.

So, being the trouble maker I was, I put my skills to some use. I did a few things I probably shouldn’t have. I didn’t tell Candy anything about it. I just quietly went about getting even, and figured I’d get them to leave her alone and that would be that. Except it wasn’t.

I found out during passing periods that Candy got pulled out of class and brought down to the Dean’s office. See, one of the things I’d done was to leave a less than nice letter in the girl’s locker... it might’ve been considered halfway decent prose, for a horror writer... and of course, Candy got blamed. But because she already had some issues at school, it was the last straw.

By the time I got down to the Dean’s office, Ms. I, the Dean, and the Principal were standing over Candy as she sat sobbing. I’d never seen her cry. I’d seen her crack ceramic with her head, I’d seen her seconds after getting cornered in a bathroom stall by five girls who were twice her size, but I’d never seen her cry.

I stood in the doorway, knowing I had to say something but having no clue where to start. I gripped my books to my chest so hard I could barely breathe, but I doubted I deserved the air.

“This doesn’t concern you. Go to class,” the principal said. She was a tiny nun who scared the hell out of me, even on a good day.

“Well, it kind of does,” I started, and I might have stuttered a bit before continuing, but honestly I have no idea how I got any words out at all. “I wrote that note in your hand.”

The look on Candy’s face, I can’t even describe it. You’d think angry, I’d have been livid. You’d think incredulous or annoyed or, stand there for a second while I beat the bloody tar out of you, but it wasn’t any of those things. It was heart-in-her-mouth thankful, and I knew damn well I didn’t deserve that, either.

My tongue swelled and my throat ached, and in the pit of my stomach that little ball of terror started spinning into vivid images of my impending downward spiral. I don’t even remember walking into the room, but there I was, sitting in the chair next to Candy. She was sent back to class, while the principal’s eyes dilated in my general direction – coiling, ready to strike.

I was done. I knew it. They’d call my aunt and tell her I was expelled. Again. Forgot to mention that part, didn’t I? I’d already been tossed out of my first high school, and it pained my aunt to no end to use the term, “broken home”, how mortifying to have a relative from one of those... still less mortifying than admitting they were such a fuck up that they’d get thrown out of school... and here it was, proof that I didn’t deserve the excuse. I was inexcusable.

As my tiny, yet formidable, principal opened her mouth to speak, another voice broke the air.

“Well, it was loyal. We are trying to teach these girls loyalty and compassion for their fellow students, and as misguided as this was, the intention was to help her friend during a very hard time...” It was Ms. I.

You know, I can’t remember the whole speech. It took me at least the first few minutes to register that she’d taken something I’d done, something ridiculously bad, something they could have probably pressed criminal charges for, and spun it into... character? And the shock, because seriously, I thought all of those nods hello were her way of reminding me that she was watching me. Not watching out for me. Let me tell you, too, I don’t think I’ve met anyone yet who could spin that argument so flippin’ well. In the end, I walked out without even a detention. My parents never knew.

Two years later, we were all getting ready to graduate. There were ups and downs to my high school career – teachers I adored, some not so much... I found writing there (being that this is an essay about writing mentors, you’d think I’d have mentioned that sooner). My creative writing teacher was awesome; I won all sorts of accolades for the writing contests, and expanded my literary and artistic tastes in ways I wouldn’t have even dreamed of four short years earlier. And at the very end, standing in the auditorium, I thought about where to go from there.

I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to be, what I was really – but it was just a pipe dream. People like me don’t become writers. That’s for other people. Blessed or better or, well, not me. And I decided that I might like to teach – theology of all things. It was my favorite subject next to literature. My senior year religion teacher was thrilled that I was leaning in that direction and he mentioned it to Ms. I.

Ms. I said, “No she’s not. She’s a writer.” Then she looked dead at me and said, “You’re a writer. I expect to see your books someday.”

That was it – simple, not elaborate. She said what she had to say. But she believed it, before I would even consider it a possibility, she believed it.

Here’s the thing, the essay was supposed to be about my writing mentor, and I’ve had many. I’ve had teachers who have supported me and believed in me. I’ve had critique partners and writers who have taught me so much more than I could have taught myself, who’ve helped me develop as a writer and a person, and shared with me pieces of their journey.

I’ve never had one discussion about literature with Ms. I. I have no idea if she understands the first thing about the rules of fiction, or what she reads or whether she’s ever tried writing. What I know is that she saw me – black, white, and every shade of gray. And whatever her first impression, however many times she should have written me off, she believed I was worth the effort, worth a second chance, worth making a run at a pipe dream, worth believing in. There are many writers who I owe debts both large and small throughout my own writing journey – but without Ms. I, there might not have been a first step. And what she gave me, no book can teach.

23 comments:

Gemma Noon said...

That was... that was beautiful. You have a wonderful way with words. Well done for being a finalist xxxxx

Laurel said...

Merry:

Congrats and that was awesome. I love so many things about your story with Candy. This hit a sweet spot, or sore spot, for me.

The coolest thing is that troublesome letter, the one that caused so much trouble, crossed the path of someone who could see the motivation behind it and the talent within.

Great essay, great story, and now I really want to go somewhere and drink beer with you.

CKHB said...

Wow.

Natasha Fondren said...

Merry, wow, awesome, *tears*, and CONGRATULATIONS!

Charles Gramlich said...

Wow, that was a helluva post. It deserves wide publication. It's not often I find myself totally consummed within a blog post but this one did it for me. Amazing!

noni said...

Beautiful! It took me back to my own high school fears and traumas lo those many years ago.

Thank you, and much success to you!

Sarah Laurenson said...

*sigh* Beautiful, just beautiful.

Chris Eldin said...

Reading this gave me goosebumps and tears. So beautiful. I couldn't tear my eyes away even for a second. I hope you do publish this, or better yet, turn it into a YA.

Jane Steen said...

I really liked that one. Kudos Merry!

Scheherazade said...

That was a wonderful, intriguing story! There are always those people, good-intentioned or not, insightful or not, who are the catalysts that motivate us to choose one path over another.

Rebecca Knight said...

This was just a fantastic read :). Thank you for sharing part of your journey with us!

Man, these all get to me. I wish these were all in an anthology I could own and drag out when I'm feeling like a writerly pick-me-up.

_*Rachel*_ said...

This was amazing. And it's so cool to have found a mentor in such an unusual way. Joy from where you least expect it!

Congratulations!

Merry Monteleone said...

Thanks guys *I blush*

I appreciate all of the wonderful comments and I'm glad you guys liked it.

Chris,

I felt funny writing a memoir piece, to be honest, I even changed the names because of that. So I probably won't use an exact real life story in fiction - but I am writing a YA - different characters and story, same black humor voice. :-)

Chris Eldin said...

Merry, Really? Aww... well, I wasn't thinking memoir though. I was thinking you could take the same setting and characters, and most of the plot points, add some creative license and and and...
Well, one's past does keep teaching. I'm glad you found inspiration through the turmoil.

Laurel said...

Hey, Merry!

I'm with Chris. The events don't have to be the same but I can't imagine that the "secret avenger of the high school dregs" would not find a very prominent place on the YA shelves. Sort of a real-life, that could actually happen fantasy.

Using mischief making powers for good and only applying them to the guilty. Maybe even the occasional teacher who offers implicit approval by turning a blind eye? C'mon. Throw me a bone.

Ferrol Sams offers an interesting application of this technique in his Run With the Horsemen trilogy, particularly the middle one, The Whisper of the River.

I'll pre-order from Amazon right now! Go, Merry!

Merry Monteleone said...

Okay, but only if I can use, Secret Avenger of the High School Dregs as my title - that's flippin' awesome! :-)

Laurel said...

Merry, the title is yours for the low, low price of a mention on the acknowledgements page. That way, I am sure to have my name somewhere on the earthshattering bestseller of 2014!

Joelle said...

Wow. This is an amazing piece of writing.

Dawn Simon said...

Merry, I love your writing. Wow.

David Alton Dodd said...

Wow, I could relate to this on so many levels. The story, and the story within a story is excellent, but I like the style just as much. An in-your-face narrative, telling it like it was.

Very well done!

Starbuck O'Shea said...

Merry... this made me cry. What an awesome story. I really anticipate seeing more of your future work!

Moonie, thanks so much for having your contest.

Anne*---
[ninja copy editor]

plumbelieve said...

Merry,

Your words left me sitting in front of my computer sitting completely still for a few moments. This does not happen to me often. You were kind and brave to share this very personal story.

Thank goodness for those people in our lives that offer hope and encouragement...our mentors, muses and even our monsters.

I look forward to reading your book that will emerge from the printers. I read part of it already on Editorial Anonymous earlier.

Thanks!

Merry Monteleone said...

Laurel,

Having read some of your blog posts, I'd be happy to see your own name on the spine of a bestseller - but if I use the awesome title, I'll definitely thank you... with words and chocolates :-)

Thank you everyone for your very supportive and awesome comments, they definitely made me smile.