Friday, March 12, 2010

Flashback Friday: Learning to write

My brother Blair and I, 1999

When I was a junior in high school, I had the most amazing English teacher. She wasn't one of those teachers who was generally popular, who everyone loved, but I loved her.

She wasn't the only junior English teacher at my high school, though, and that year, all the teachers (I think there were four) got together to sponsor a quasi-contest. I don't think there was a prize, and participation happened to be compulsory, but it was for a great cause: college entrance essay practice. All the juniors wrote an autobiographical-ish essay like the ones required with a college application and during a few designated class periods, everybody read everybody else's essays (anonymously) and rated them. The teachers tallied up the votes to declare a winner, but more importantly, we had honed our skills and gotten some great ideas in the meantime.

One of the reasons I remember this contest so well is because there was one essay that got passed around that was hilarious/disturbing. It told the story of a child who grew up in a small "hamlet" (that was the word the essay used) who was often beaten and screamed at by his/her parents. I don't remember anything else about the essay besides those bizarre establishing facts, except that the entire essay was written in a very stilted, unnatural, almost incomprehensible style (see "hamlet," above). Looking back, it is obvious to me that the essay must have been written by one of our school's many recent immigrant students and then been run through some kind of an automatic translation and we were all reading a very shoddy rendering of the original (which probably wasn't too fantastic to begin with). That essay was all my friends and I could talk about for, well, the remainder of that English class anyway. We wondered who wrote it, what on earth they were thinking when they wrote it, and if things ever got better in their family. We hoped they did.


The other reason I remember this contest so well is that I won it. I enjoyed writing when I was in elementary school but that was mostly stories that had little to do with my everyday reality. My time with this particular English teacher my junior year of high school was the first time I realized what I really liked writing: personal anecdotes, stories about things I knew and experienced first-hand.

I was going through a box of papers yesterday and I found my essay from that little contest, vintage 1997/16-year-old Bridget. Here it is, for your enjoyment. I've left it absolutely intact, errors and all.

Blair and I were destined to become best friends. I was born five years and a week after he was, so there was no rivalry between us that is often found in siblings who are born close together. And yet we were close enough in age to have a good relationship. So in elementary school, when it was the sixth-graders' turn to pick the teams for the school-wide "Olympics," Blair chose me (a mere kindergartner at the time) first.

During the school year he helped me with my science homework, during the summer we played soccer in my backyard. And for countless hours he laid on the living room couch and listened to me play the piano.

Blair passed the test for his driver's license when he turned 16, and so driving became our newest source of fun. On a Saturday night when we had nothing else to do, Blair and I drove the winding backroads that criss-crossed our area. He sped faster and faster, accelerating around the curves until the centrifugal force threatened to upset our stomachs. We whipped around each corner like a slingshot and I was slammed against the side of the car over and over again. The music was blaring loudly, so deafening it seemed the only thing I could feel was my ears. We returned home calm and collected so as not to alarm our parents, but inside my heart was still racing.

And then college came. Our entire family celebrated his acceptance into his first choice school, and we went with him to the university to say goodbye. He was exuberant and hopeful. As we drove away, he stood there outside his dorm, all by himself. We waved to him as he grew smaller and smaller, until he was almost swallowed up by the buildings around him. I looked back one last time through the rear window of our car, but he had already turned his head away from our enthusiastic goodbyes toward the green building that was his new home. A pang of emptiness and change pierced my soul.

Since Blair no longer lived at home, I inherited his room. Before I slept each night, I laid on the bed, gazing at the posters and awards that plastered the walls. The glare from the light reflected off the dozens of medals and trophies he had earned during his high school athletic years, and gave the room an ethereal quality. Blair was my hero, and here in this room were his heroes, his dreams, his accomplishments. And for those few brief moments, Blair was home again.

He came back from college a grown man, so different from the spirited teenager he had been. I was so eager to demonstrate to him how I had followed in his footsteps. I showed him pictures from my cross-country and track seasons, and explained how I thought of him during races and ran faster. His eyes wandered as I spoke and he appeared uninterested. I told myself he was only tired from jet lag, but I had a sinking feeling that a more permanent change had taken place. I begged him to help me do my AP Biology homework, but he rushed out with this grown-up friends to do grown-up things. I played for him all the piano songs he used to like, but he complained that he couldn't concentrate with all the noise. My fingers touched the keys lighter as I attempted not to disturb him, but he jerked his head up to glare at me. I lessened my touch until my fingers barely skimmed the keys, then the music stopped and my hands fell silently into my lap.

And now it is I who have the driver's license, and Blair tentatively climbs in the passenger seat. He is hesitant and unsmiling. The car takes off with a lurch, and I reach for the radio's volume control to turn it full blast. But his hand reaches out and stops mine. "You won't be able to concentrate on driving," he says. I look over at him and I detect traces of my father in his face. He has a firmer chin and furrowed brows, as if he is carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Once home, I retire to my room. I lie on my bed with my eyes open and gaze around this room that used to be Blair's but now belongs to me. His medals have lost some of their shine - many are covered up by my own - and their glow is now proud and arrogant. My vision blurs, and I heave myself off the bed and leave the room. As I pass through the hallway, a mirror catches my eye. A stab of fear seizes me for a moment, then I hesitantly approach it and move my head closer to the glass to study the reflection. I squint my eyes, and for a moment I see my mother staring back at me.

19 comments:

Jeremy Palmer said...

Excellent essay. You are amazing.

Emily said...

Wow! You know I never leave a comment, but this essay deserves one. I can't imagine being able to write that well, even now, 10 years past my junior year. I really enjoyed it!

Liz Johnson said...

Awwwwww, that's kind of heartbreaking! Poor young Bridget!

What a great essay, though. You wrote that as a junior? Geez. Did you use it for your college applications?

Bridget said...

I ended up writing a different essay the next year when it came time to finally apply. One that was a little less disillusioned (but only slightly).

Jennifer said...

Bridget, your essay is awesome!

B-Rad said...

Did you an Blair ever reconcile your differences? What college did he go to, i.e. his "first choice"?

B-Rad said...

I meant to say "Did you and Blair..."

Katie said...

So, umm, I was expecting something a little more... uhh... notsogreat. I am sincerely and bitterly impressed. (Bitterly because I always professed to be a great writer in high school, but I don't recall anything I wrote ever being that good. Perhaps because I was never so honest in my writing.) Anyway, it is a wonderful piece of writing. Okay, well now I just feel like I'm copying what everybody else is saying, but, the point is that it was really, really good.

Bridget said...

That's the thing, B-Rad. I don't know if this is a weakness or a strength in writing, but although this essay is entirely true, it is also just one side of the truth. Blair and I got along just fine after that, and even better when I went to college (at the BYU, the same place as he did).

Crys said...

This made me almost cry :)

Julee said...

I don't remember this essay but I do remember (I use the term remember loosely) the one you wrote as a senior. It opened with something about playing Brahms in the wee hours of the morn. I believe you also won the contest that year. Also, I have never been a good writer, mine was the hamlet one. Seriously, though, that girl was in my class. I think her American name was Rebecca(?) and she was Chinese. On the first round of peer editing I got her essay and I didn't even know where to start.

JosephJ said...

Yes, that essay was destined to become blog material. Or a column in the newspaper. (Do newspapers still have humor columnists? Are there still newspapers that are profitable enough to pay people to write? No wonder Dave Berry left the business! People like you write this stuff for free!)

In my mind this is an excellent specimen that illustrates that a) you have always written well (style, diction, detail), 2) you have a knack for forming a good story from everyday events, and d) you deliver a swell punchline!

And that is why I like to read MyAdventuresIn[].

Suzanne Bubnash said...

That essay was so memorable that as I began reading your blog today I thought "this sounds like the mom in the mirror" piece. Even after 11 years I still recall it. And "Nine Steps," and others.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

PS: you've always been a marvelous writer. do you recall the poem you wrote when you were about 7 about the island of Chincoteague?

Galleons tossed about,
Captain shouts.
Ponies whinny and neigh,
Sailors pray.
Wave capsizes boat,
Ponies afloat.
Years later, Phantom roams the island.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Yikes, I quoted it wrong:

Galleon tossed about,
Captain shouts.
Ponies whinny and neigh,
Sailors pray.
Wave capsizes boat,
Ponies afloat.
Ship and crew no more,
Ponies ashore.
Years later, Phantom roams the island.

Steve said...

Living in New York, you should know that there are still hamlets there. I once dated a girl from a hamlet.

ali said...

this is a fantastic essay! i am having trouble writing great essays in school and this is very inspiring! thank you bridget!

Eevi said...

Bridget, I loved your essay. And I love Jeremy's comment. I can just tell that he thinks so highly of you:) I miss you guys!

Kristen said...

What is a hamlet? (Oh and I don't know if it's pronounced the way it looks).

Julee, you stole my joke about claiming that essay.

I loved the story, and feel like I must have read it in high school because it was eerily familiar. Sometimes the best writing doesn't tell the full story. It is artful expression!

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