I’ve always enjoyed reading and writing since I was a child. Reading was magical; writing was making magic.
When I encountered Miss Schmidt in a high school English class, I had no idea what a lasting impression she would make on me. The rest of my life I dreamed of dancing on her grave.
In the 60s when hemlines were growing shorter and shorter, Miss Schmidt’s baggy, gray skirts almost reached to her ankles. She was tall and lanky with short, frizzy red hair and watery blue eyes that anxiously darted from one thing to another. The rumor was that Miss Schmidt had a nervous breakdown, most likely due to us high school students. For all I know, she was in her late 30s, but she looked and acted like she was a 60-year old crank.
I was a good enough student. Miss Schmidt gave me an A for nearly every little ditty I dashed off for her class. In truth, they were pathetic. One day I decided that if she could give me an A for no effort on my part, I would show her I could write a real story, something that would knock her socks off. Such intoxicating arrogance.
So for my next writing assignment, I spent the whole weekend working on a story about a cold-hearted doctor who had to learn about love in order to connect with his patients and the rest of the world. That’s all I remember about the story. I wrote it over and over again. It had to be perfect. It had to amaze Miss Schmidt and blast her out of her craziness. At the end of three days of writing, I read my story and said “Damn, this is good.” I felt in my bones that I had really stretched myself and accomplished something I was truly proud of.
So the next week I turned in my paper with the rest of my fellow students and waited anxiously for the paper to be graded. Unfortunately, I was ill the day the graded papers were returned. Actually, it was probably a stroke of luck. When I returned to school, one of my classmates asked what I had written about —“because you always write weird stuff.” Miss Schmidt had given someone an F.
I imagined her standing in front of the class that day I was absent. Her beady little eyes would be darting around the classroom. She would clutch at her long skirt as she often did when she was agitated and her mouth would be a thin, straight mean line across her face. According to my classmates, she had plenty to say about my masterpiece. “The person who wrote this assignment is guilty of plagiarism. I know for a fact that this student is not intelligent enough to have written this by herself. She surely copied it word for word from some literary magazine. Plagiarism deserves an F.”
I was glad I missed the public flogging. It was bad enough that everyone had already figured out that I was the one who got the F. On the day I returned, I trotted up to the black board after class, my heart pounding in my chest, and asked her why she had given me an F. She smiled and continued to clean the black board. When I assured her that I had not copied anything, she burst out laughing (I think it must have been the first time I ever heard her laugh.). I insisted I had written the paper myself. She continued to laugh, and pointed out that I had two run-on sentences and she would not raise my grade. It’s seems strange to me now that she never inquired about the literary genius who produced the two run-on sentences that I supposedly copied.
The rest of the semester, I went back to writing the nonsense she thought was worthy of an A despite my limited intelligence. It was stuff I could barely stand to write, but that would get me out of her class for good. I never forgot the humiliation, but I never stopped trying to write the perfect story. Perhaps I should thank Miss Schmidt for the inspiration—trying to knock her socks off and all, but I still dream of dancing on her grave one day.
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