When did I first consider myself a writer? I never really thought about it. Stories play over in a continuous loop in my head today, and for as long as I can remember. (I’m hoping to go digital soon, but who has time?). Decades of meticulous construction have resulted in what is now my slanted but seemingly parallel universe that places me as star, heroine, beauty, clown, and the most popular victim simultaneously. But identifying the exact moment when pencil met paper and sparks flickered stumped me at first. Then I remembered.
My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Z, punished me once by assigning me a ten page essay about appropriate classroom behavior. Such punishments were aptly named “Sides,” as in 10 Sides, 20 Sides, and for some poor souls, 50 and 60 Sides or more. Each Side represented one page of white-lined composition paper. One could get a Sides essay assignment, or be asked to repeat a phrase, like “I will raise my hand when I want to speak in class” for a given number of sides. I dreaded my first 10-sided essay – what could I possibly come up with to fill so many pages?
Luckily, like many ten-year-olds, I prided myself in expressing sarcasm at every opportunity, and decided Mr. Z needed a good dose for daring to punish me, a stellar, albeit obnoxiously loud and awkward student. I soon discovered as I babbled along I had plenty to say. At the same time I found the assignment most enjoyable. Fun, even.
Fifth grade stumbled on, and I found myself misbehaving in hopes of receiving more essay assignments. Mr. Z did not disappoint. He enjoyed it as well, assigning me essays when he could have easily given me a sentence to repeat forever. “Ten sides, Patricia,” became a lyrical phrase rivaling those of the DeFranco Family, the Bay City Rollers, and Shaun Cassidy, feeding my twisted little fifth grade mind and heart with purpose.
Mr. Z began to write his own comments in reply, and handed essays back for me to read. Sometimes he would simply write “Ha!” next to a particular sentence, egging me on to write more. The punishment morphed into amusing banter and helped me survive fifth grade, the most awkward stage of my life to date (other than menopause); full of peer pressure, hormones and meaningless work.
After nearly a lifetime, I’ve gained the confidence to write for more than just me, or a teacher with an assignment due. It’s with much gratitude I now attribute this special time of learning to conquer what often fails me in the world outside my head: reaching out, connecting, and giving the stories inside me that continue to pile up a chance for release.
Mr. Z, thanks a thousand times over. Or at least 10 sides worth.
Patricia Mitchell recently published A Girl from the Hill: My Mother’s Journey from Italian Girl to American Woman, and is currently working on a teen novel. You can read more of her essays on her website here.