y penchant for writing started long before I ever moved to Rome, before the trappings of “grown-up” life, of bills and work and dating. When I think back to my first clear memory sitting down with loose-leaf paper and a pencil, I am eight years old, wearing a starchy white shirt and stiff navy blue shorts, my third grade school uniform. It’s a hot September day, summer still lingering, and the hallway smells like boiled hot dogs, the cafeteria’s Tuesday lunch specialty. I remember our assignment, to write a short story inspired by our summer.
While the others wrote about beach days with their grandparents or going to theme parks in brief, scribbled paragraphs, I thought of the garden statue in our flowerbeds and penned a tale about a fairy named Hazel and her turtle Thistle who carried her throughout the village. It was 13 pages long.
Any other teacher in my strict Catholic school might have reprimanded me for exceeding the set page limit, or for dirtying my desk (the penciled imprint of my words clung, smudged, to its wooden surface), but Mrs. Caulk did not. Feisty and outspoken, she drank Tab soda obsessively, smelled like chalk dust, and rolled her eyes at the administration’s church teachings. “She killed a woman with a pick ax!” she protested angrily when our principal announced on the loudspeaker that we pray for the soul of death row inmate Aileen Wuornos.
In her class I was told to write, and I did: at Christmas time, I invented a story about how my family’s snow village figurines came to life at night, and helped Santa deliver presents. On Ash Wednesday, I imagined how a little boy’s ashes brushed onto his bed at night. When the bed was eventually too old and tossed to the garbage, it didn’t end up in a landfill, but instead ascended to heaven.
My elementary school identity soon blossomed. I was Alex or Allie, the freckled shorter twin, who did classical ballet, and wrote very long, short stories. “You’re weird,” one of my friends told me after I gave her ideas for her St. Patrick’s Day assignment, but she said it with a smile and a hint of admiration, and I felt proud.
When I switched to a wealthy, liberal, private school at 12, writing became a solace of sorts. I may not have known what Burberry or Armani were, or do things with boys in the dark of the movie theater, but I could at least write a good story, and do well in my English class. Mrs. von Reinhart gave me A’s and she signed my papers with her initials, JVR. She recommended books that I might enjoy reading outside the classroom, and collected her students’ writing in fat binders labeled with the year that she proudly displayed on her bookshelves.
She explained the power of metaphors and foreshadowing, taught us Shakespearean insults, and encouraged my writing. She was the first to notice I’d gotten my braces off, too: “Alex, you look wonderful,” she said in front of my classmates. I turned happily purple. By high school, however, things began to change. We were instructed to read our writing out loud, which mortified me, a shy and uncomfortable teenager. I became part of the school’s literary journal, and was devastated when my anonymous submission of a poem about a mermaid, written perched on a rock overlooking the ocean that August, was ridiculed and belittled by two senior girls.
Handing in writing assignments induced anxiety, and I fretted over them for weeks, crestfallen at receiving an A-. I submitted a writing assignment for a competition held by the school and held back tears when I wasn’t chosen. I realized that I had become a writer who hated to write. That year in my Psych 101 class, I learned about a gorilla that enjoyed playing a game where she had to fish a toy out of a series of boxes. Once she began to be rewarded for her efforts with a treat, she eventually lost interest in the game. She experienced, according to the researches, the phenomenon of intrinsic satisfaction transformed into extrinsic, when a price is placed on what was once a joyful hobby. I felt for the gorilla.
By college, I shied away from taking creative writing courses, working instead on pieces in my own time, before stopping all together. I suppose I wanted to shield this small, imperfect part of me, to preserve it. Once, when waiting for a classroom to empty, I overheard an English professor lecturing her class: “Writing is a muscle. You need to use it everyday or it’ll be lost.” My heart sank. Eventually, I traded in my identity as a writer for that of a linguist. I excelled at both Spanish and Italian, and could write, read, and speak both with flying colors. It’s only been now, in the past few years, that I am slowly unearthing my dormant passion for writing.
Even now, I can’t say that every column is written voraciously and with exuberance, but instead with a steady carefulness, much like heading down a dark hallway at night, feeling for the light switch. Writing, I’ve come to accept, isn’t always (if ever) an easy process, but slightly uncomfortable. The satisfaction, the solid contentment I feel, when all is said and published, is enough that I persist. Mrs. Caulk, and JVR, would be proud.