Chosen by Mariflo Stephens

I started to become a writer with the first writing exercise I was ever given. I was 12. Mrs. A, my seventh-grade teacher, called it a ‟theme.” She said a theme should have a title, like ‟I Like Horses,” and then the paragraphs that followed would explain why the author liked horses. I did like horses, so that’s what I wrote: “I Like Horses.”

When the themes were graded and passed back, I saw I’d made a C. My theme had too many misspellings and was too short. My teacher was also bothered by the way I wrote about holding my big, black pony, Nightmare, between my thighs.

I again encounter Mrs. A. when I am 14 and in ninth grade. She has somehow moved up to the high school. Another nightmare. Standing before us, she goes on and on about this thing she wants us to write, this “essay.” I study her. I’m still mad over that C. Also, she’s confiscated my note to my friend, Jane.

Mrs. A’s hands are covered with blue inky spots, and when she hands back my papers, the inky spots smudge the margins. She holds a piece of chalk, tosses it from hand to hand. When she turns her back to write the essay’s due date, I make a face at Jane. But then a new thing happens within me. It’s as if the world has fallen away. I train my eyes on the sheet of paper in front of me. I pick up my pencil and write Teacher at the top of the page. The essay begins with the words: ‟Inky spots. Inky spots. All over her hands. All over my paper.” The bell rings, but I am still writing. Jane walks off in a huff.

girl writing in notebook
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Weeks later I am walking down the hall when I see Mrs. A. making a bee-line for me carrying a paper. She has read my essay about her; surely she won’t yell at me here. She pulls me into an empty classroom, shows me my paper with red ink everywhere. Mrs. A asks me how is it, how is it, I have not learned to punctuate or spell? I shake my head; I don’t understand it either. But, she continues, as this is an essay contest, sponsored by the newspaper, she can submit it, but I must correct these errors. There are lots, and I can’t imagine doing it; but she has dropped hints: ‟Sp.?” red marks indicate.

‟Period or comma?” she says now. ‟Is this a complete sentence?”

I have no bloody idea.

Then she gestures to two words she’s written at the top.

‟Just an idea for a new title. It can stay Teacher; consider the change only if you want it.”

My essay appeared in the newspaper under her suggested title, Inky Spots, and for first prize I won seven dollars, which I considered a lot of money. My name appeared under the title and my paternal grandmother, who lived across the street from the newspaper editor, was so proud she gave me another dollar. Printed up that way, in the newspaper, my essay looked different, nicer, more real.

I could hardly stop looking at it. At 14, I was a published writer.

That portrait of my teacher was not flattering, but she took the blow I dealt her. And I dealt her blow after blow. After I described her inky hands, I went to her Spartan wardrobe, her severe hairstyle, and her precise mannerisms. Maybe because she respected that objectivity, she let me tell my story.

I’ve always heard you become a writer if your mother chooses you to tell her stories to. But when I stitched my writing life together, I realized a teacher can choose you too.

Mariflo Stephens
Mariflo Stephens, whose fiction is included in Contemporary American Women Writers, also writes essays, two of which were published in The Barbie Chronicles and Successful Writing Strategies. She was awarded two grants for fiction from the Virginia Commission for the Arts. Stephens’s essay Appalachian Sprung won the Missouri Review’s Miller Audio Prize for 2017, and another essay will be published in Dogwood: A Journal of Poetry and Prose in the spring of 2018.

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