Let's rewind back to August 27th, 2002. I'm 18 years old and it's the first day of my sophomore year at the local community college. The classroom is hot, the brick building old, and the desks are arranged in a circle. This is English Composition I.
My classmates and I avoid eye contact as we wait for our teacher. Little do I know that a pivotal moment in my life is about to play out.
Ms. Skebe enters the room. Long red hair, alabaster skin, and impossibly young. She smiles and introduces herself with the eloquent poise of a poet and a vocabulary to match. She didn't give off the usual air of superiority and mild tragedy I found so common in the hippie/beatnik circles around campus. I'm intrigued. I just came from Business Law I where an old crusty man in a pinstripe suit strutted about in pant legs four inches too short. He was not quite this easy on the eyes.
After a brief introduction, we jump right into a few passages from a book of poetry and the open-ended questions begin. "What do you think the author was feeling?", "What does this passage mean to you?" came the softball pitches, one after the other. I don't have answers. "Hungry? Nothing?" I think to myself.
I try to follow the dizzying and complex use of the English language. Why can't people just say exactly what they mean so everyone can understand them? Ms. Skebe commands the room. She has these passages memorized and smiles as we struggle with the prose. She's so young, there's no way she's done this before. How is she so good at this?
Just when I think I can't take one more brain-bending stanza I'm saved by a writing exercise. Are we ever going to review the syllabus? When is the mid-term? Does she grade on a curve? We're to write in a stream-of-consciousness, anything-goes style. "Just start writing." she says. "It doesn't matter what about. Don't think, don't stop, just keep writing until I say stop or you run out of paper."
So I write.
"My first impression of Ms. Skebe was that I didn't think she was the teacher, I thought someone was goofing around by chatting from behind the desk. She looks so young! She looks my age, although I know she must be in her late 20's because she is teaching. I don't know how old you need to be, or how long it takes to get the degree but it doesn't seem that she is old enough. I suppose she will be grateful for that as she grows older. It's like she's an actress about to break character at any time.
She reminds me of a cross between Anne of Green Gables & Julia Styles. It's such a weird mix; I'm not sure what to think about it. I'm used to professors who are older than my parents, or dirt for that matter. I think it's cool.
I feel like I'm going to be challenged in a new way in this class, from the way she seems to lead this group of delinquent college kids. I feel far too shallow to see any insight into the passages we've read, that I can't let go and say something meaningful, but I don't know why.
Her pronunciation is perfect, and her vocabulary is larger than anyone I've met. I am thoroughly impressed.
I'm totally rambling because I have nothing else to say at this moment. I feel so alone right now though, like no one is really here to listen to me, but I'm still not ready to talk anyway."
I put down my pen. My brain has been emptied out like a bowl of oatmeal. I have scraped the bottom with a spatula and found nothing note-worthy remaining. And that's when she begins to collect the papers.
I freeze in horror. I count the desks in the circle between her and I. Or is it she and me? Either way, in 11 desk-units-of-time she will collect my private thoughts, free to read and re-read them as she pleases.
At her whim, she can post them on a cork board in the faculty lounge or forward them to a secret teachers-only mailing list for embarrassing things students write. I imagine heads thrown back in gratuitous laughter, fancy berets staying perfectly in place as they defy gravity at my expense. Champagne glasses clink as slam poets read my inner thoughts to the a-melodic sounds of bongos played in an indistinguishable time signature.
My mind races for a solution. Could I fill a fresh page in 20 seconds? How long does it take to eat a sheet of paper? Is ballpoint pen ink toxic? Will I fail the class if I don't participate? Can I swap papers with the girl next to me?
A shadow falls across my desk and I blink, snapping out of my daze and I realize she's 3 desks beyond me. I look down at my desk. The sheet is missing and in its place I discover a steaming pile of embarrassment. Slowly, tenderly, like a boxer after going 10 rounds in the ring easing into a tub of ice, I lay my face down into the pile. It smells like soup and tastes like shame. And a little bit like garlic.
Then I have an idea. I snap my head up. Perhaps a direct approach could work? Better to try and fail than not try at all, they always say. I read that on a tear-off calendar this morning so it must be true. "Ms. Skebe! I didn't know you were going to collect these papers! Can I have mine back?" I cross my fingers, hoping for a miracle.
"Oh don't you worry, I'm the only person who will read them. Any and all secrets will be locked away, safe with me."
That's what I'm afraid of. Wait, did she just wink??
The rest of the day was a blur. I was so afraid of what Ms. Skebe was thinking. Was it completely inappropriate? Did I break any rules or code of conduct? Would I get kicked out of school? Were we actually the same age? How did my hair look? Oh god my handwriting is terrible! Did I put the commas in the right places? Why did I use a semi-colon?! Did I use it correctly? Would she be impressed? Who in the world is impressed my semi-colons? If anyone was, it was her.
Back in the circle the next day, all the papers were returned one at at time. Each is marked up with comments and corrections in red. I avoided eye contact. I'm sure my cheeks were flushed. What would mine say?
Working up a chicken nugget's worth of courage, I looked down and saw a red circle surrounding the words "Anne of Green Gables". A related comment had been written in the margin:
Very flattering. =)
Was that a pity smiley or playful smiley? It could be worse, right? I continued with caution, the way you creep past a terrible car wreck on the side of the road, afraid to see something that will scar you for life and simultaneously unable to not look.
My rambling commentary had been corrected for proper grammar and punctuation. Commas were placed appropriately, typos adjusted. An assurance was made that she indeed was old enough to teach, and at the bottom was a short note.
"Thank you for the humbling compliments. I think being weird is a good thing. I'm always available to listen, as I think you'll find most people are. Don't be afraid to be yourself."
I didn't save my original handwritten paper but do still have the hand-typed version that became part of my spiral-bound collection of (pitiful) writings from this semester. I've paraphrased Ms. Skebe's closing note and am clarifying this point just in case she's out there, is stalking me, remembers this, and corrects me yet again.
Seventeen years later...
This memory still makes me laugh. I wish I had the guts to own it and have a little fun at the time. One of life's silly little regrets. We never did mention the paper in person.
I spent the rest of the semester seeking approval and working hard on improving my command of the language. I also learned to appreciate the way poets could compress enough thought and feeling into a single line that its meaning could be unpacked and discussed for hours. It's practically magical.
This experience stuck with me, and looking back I can see the three important lessons I learned from it and the rest of the semester.
1. I learned that "weird" can be a compliment
Up to this point in my life I had assumed that "weird" was an insult. A negative adjective only applied to things you disliked or that made you uncomfortable. A relative of "lame", "freak", "nerd", and the other pejoratives we won't mention from the 90s.
Home-schooled from 3rd grade all the way through high-school, I was afraid I wouldn't be accepted by classmates and professors. Afraid there was some secret code, handshake, eye wink, or other initiation I would fail, and be forever ostracized. Afraid they would assume I was one of those homeschoolers who grew up wearing clothes made out of curtains, who had a family theme song, shucked corn for fun on the weekends, and traveled around in an old bus. Afraid that I was too unique. Afraid I would have to watch Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with my sisters again for the 33rd time.
In this class I was able to watch someone be exactly who they were — even if it meant criticism and judgment. She simply owned the room, wherever she was, and it was amazing to watch. It was like a seed of confidence and poise was planted, and I've been growing and cultivating my own flavor of it ever since. I am who I am and that's just that. There's a redundant sentence for you.
Over the years I've found that most people are way too busy worrying about themselves and their own stuff to analyze you. And if you do find yourself in someone's crosshairs, deep down that judgment is probably aimed at themselves, they're using you as a mirror, and they don't like what they see.
Or maybe, and I say maybe, you actually just need a shower. A sniff check rarely hurts.
2. I learned to love writing
This class woke the fledgling writer in me. That spiral-bound notebook I assembled from my writings contains nothing worth sharing today, but was my starting point. I haven't stopped writing since. And even though most of what I write is for myself or my business, times are changing. You're here, aren't you?
I want to write more, in more places, in more fonts, in more sizes, in more text colors, in more mediums, for more people, about more things.
3. I discovered a solution to writer's block
That stream-of-consciousness writing exercise became a pattern I've used ever since for overcoming writer's block. I've yet to find myself in that stand-still, terrified-of-the-blank-page situation many writers do. But of course, there's still time.
Whenever I struggle to find words, I begin typing anything and everything that comes to mind. Once I find my voice, I delete (or save in a secret folder for my own personal amusement) the paragraphs of rambling jibberish and on I go.
This process is so enjoyable that a number of friends and I ran email chains full of this random nonsense back in college and the years following. We would write, bouncing from topic to completely unrelated topic as rapidly as possible, and then pass the "story" onto the next person in the chain. Bonus points were awarded for the most unexpected and far-reaching topic changes. We called this "jibbing", short for jibber-jabbering, and we got good at it. Really good. I could jump from turtleneck modeling and aardvark mating rituals to french toast conspiracy theories and sewer grates made of cottage cheese in 2 seconds flat.
Perhaps it's time to revisit the Art of the Jib. If you want in, kick it off with an email. There's no wrong way to do it.
The obligatory wrap-up
I've always found it odd to conclude an article immediately following a 1-2-3 list. Was the 3rd point the most important? Where in the hierarchy should a proper conclusion live? So here's my closing thought under its very own
Be yourself. Be bold. Seek adventure. Start writing. And if you're embarrassed by something, just own it and laugh along with everyone else. It's way more fun.
Published May 22, 2020