I was eight. My classmates were reading their creative stories out loud. Standing at the front of the class, the child read their words until another student caught a mistake in grammar, wording, or story logic. Most kids managed to stammer a few sentences before arms flew up, errors were identified, and Sister Mary Agnes told the kid to sit down and fix it.
I was one of the smart girls who sat in the first row along the bank of windows. Our seats were highly-sought acknowledgements of high grades and keen attention to our nun teacher rather than the fascinating world outside. At any moment, we could be demoted to the masses in that boxy, sterile room.
My story was a good one. It had to be if I wanted to stay beside the windows. I was proud of my twisty plot and solid characters. What’s more, grammar and spelling came naturally to me. This was the one thing that I ever managed to do right in a Catholic school governed by changeable laws and filled with stunned, silent children.
Reading further than any other kid, I was surging through my tale when Ellen waved her lovely, sweeet hand. Perfect Ellen of brown wavy hair, ivory skin, and righteous knee socks told everyone where I had gone wrong. Her soft voice emphatically pointed out my faults with a hint of chagrin.
Chastened, I slid back into my seat. I couldn’t hear the next kid reading with the blood roaring through my ears. Cheeks burning, I stared at the page. Ellen was wrong. I hadn’t made a mistake. I should be allowed to go back up there and finish reading my story. Besides, the other kids deserved to know what happened to Little Deer and her flowers. However, there were no second chances here, no opportunity for making up for mistakes, even wrongly identified ones. I was through.
It was third grade again. I was a parent volunteer helping my son’s class write Halloween stories. For the past thirty minutes, an earnest boy had spiraled through an endless story about a scarecrow who lost his hat, impervious to my tentative suggestions.
Ten minutes left in story time, the teacher signaled to me to sit with another student who’d asked for help. The boy continued reading to my back as I crossed the room, settled into a tiny chair, and introduced myself to K.
K was confident blonde, sincerely eight with crooked pigtails. I read her one-page story. Stunned by clear prose and elegant ending, I looked up. I know, she said, this part’s too much. She crossed out a few sentences with a stubby red pencil. And this, this is wrong, too. She added a comma. As we talked about her story, I realized that I sat with genius, eight years old with grubby fingers and round blue eyes. As story time concluded, K accepted my compliment with a nod, thanked me for my help and skipped back to her seat.
A few weeks later, I ran into K’s mother at the train station. We made polite school parent conversation and then I told her about my experience with K’s story, that she was the most talented, instinctual writer that I’d ever met. The mother smiled and changed the subject to K’s struggles with soccer. Trying again, I begged her to nurture her daughter’s talent. Years later, I heard that K was captain of her soccer team, applying to decent business schools.