Story untangles distorted memories and reveals truths

by Jerry Waxler

(Listen to the podcast using the player control at the bottom of this post or download it from iTunes.)

During one fateful day in ninth grade, I discreetly positioned a science fiction book on my desk and was reading it while the English teacher droned on. I was so absorbed in the exploration of the galaxy that Mr. Disharoon walked up behind me, caught me red handed and confiscated the book. I always assumed the ‘C’ I received in that class, my only ‘C’ in high school, was based more on revenge than poor performance.

The first version of that story, the one that automatically comes to mind, looks at Mr. Disharoon as the villain, a self-righteous jerk who busted me for reading in his English class. How ironic! Later when I was rejected from a highly competitive college, I blamed Mr. Disharoon’s mean spirit.

Now that I write about that incident, I look deeper, and I immediately see flaws in my original version. For one thing, I was the one who was breaking the rules, and he was doing his job by enforcing them. It would be self-serving of me to forgive myself for the crime, while blaming him for the punishment. I shift to his point of view. Through his eyes I see a bratty kid who doesn’t seem interested in learning.

I spot another problem with the proposition that Mr. Disharoon ruined my life. This was not the only English class I struggled with. The following year, in a rare visit to a teacher’s office, I went to ask my tenth grade English teacher Mr. Barsky for help. I wasn’t doing well in his class, either. The final blow to my interpretation of events came a few weeks ago, when I was corresponding with a fellow writer. I was telling her I sprinkle commas or semi-colons wherever the mood strikes me. She seemed surprised, pointing out the pleasures and virtues of correct punctuation. The conversation sounded familiar. I realized I’ve often defended myself as a “free spirit” amidst the rules of English. Ah-ha! I was reading the science fiction book because I didn’t care about my teacher’s stupid rules. I deserved the ‘C’.

I am fascinated to discover that I have permitted this important story of my past to remain in its original form for decades. To learn more, I look more closely at the characters. As a young man, I was almost obsessed with obedience, so when I was caught in such a defiant act, I was not only breaking rules. I was undermining my own self image. It was overwhelming to think I’d blown it so badly, so instead of taking the blame myself I shifted it over to Mr. Disharoon. He was the jerk, not me. This “logic” made sense when I was 14 years old. Once I had developed this explanation, it took on a logic of its own. The thousandth time I remembered the episode, I saw it the same way I did when it first happened.

But wasn’t there any truth at all to my original interpretation? How could I have been so far off the mark? I look for evidence to prove Mr. Disharoon was a spiteful man, but I can’t find any. In fact, his office provided a hang out for a coterie of adoring students. I stick myself back into the scene, and try to understand what I was thinking. At that time in my life, I had fallen so deeply in love with science fiction books that when I read one, I became lost in its world and couldn’t let it go. Robert Heinlein’s “Tunnels in the Sky” had seduced me into joining a band of explorers stranded on a remote planet, facing the dangers of the mysterious stobors and that was preferable to being in an English class. When Disharoon snatched my book he ripped me away from that world. I felt violated. I see his face, ordinarily pale, now flushed under snow white hair. In addition to being disgusted with myself, I realize I was angry with him.

All these years, I’ve been focused on my belief that he didn’t like me, but now I recognize my own feelings of dislike. This realization shocks me. As a “good boy” I took great pride in my obedience to teachers. They were the gods of my world, and in order to succeed, I needed to serve them, even worship them when possible. Now as I hear his bass voice and his exaggerated elocution as if he was some kind of damned radio announcer, he seems full of himself. Pompous. What did he know? Screw him and his damned rules. I was such an obedient robot-like teen, this memory stands out as the only example of defiance from those years. That’s kind of cool! I had guts in a nerdy sort of way.

All of these lessons about myself come from the simple act of trying to tell a proper story. When I tried writing it in the form it has always presented itself in my mind, it didn’t sound right. To turn it into a readable story I had to strip away the layers of self-righteousness and expose the actual events. In the process, I feel lighter. I’ve released my load of blame and I learned more about the events that shaped me.

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Writing Prompt: Select a memory in which you felt hurt or wronged. (Be sure it’s a safe one. Don’t jump into a memory unless you are ready.) Step back from your own feelings, and especially from your sense of outrage, and describe the situation the way an observer would who was not partial to either party.

Note: The book I was reading in high school was Robert Heinlein’s Tunnel in the Sky about a group of young people who were exploring the universe through “tunnels” or “wormholes.” The warning they were given to beware of the “Stobors” turned out to be a meta-warning, which really meant “Beware of some unknown danger which you don’t know about now but it’s out there.” “Beware of the stobors” has become one of those classic Robert Heinlein phrases that has passed down through generations of his readers.

3 thoughts on “Story untangles distorted memories and reveals truths

  1. I’ve been applying this discipline to several of my life experiences in an effort to write more honestly.

    I’m here to tell you, it ain’t easy, babe.

    It ain’t easy.

  2. Hah! If you had taken that warning about the stobors to heart, maybe you wouldn’t have been reading in class?

    What a great story about retrospective reevaluation and the self-discovery benefits of memoir writing. Congratulations on your new insight about your teachers. Does this mean you are going to get serious about punctuation henceforth?

  3. I’m trying, Ritergal. Sigh. I’m getting pretty good with commas but dashes, semi-colons, and colons leave me high and dry. One of my critiquers suggested I keep a copy of a style guide by my desk and that it should be dog eared from repeated use. Oops. I ordered one. It should arrive any day. 🙂

    Actually you’re the writer with whom I was having the conversation, so I’m glad you left a comment on this blog. I was feeling guilty for not giving you credit for being the one who tipped the scales.

    Jerry

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