THE BLOG
12/12/2012 04:25 pm ET | Updated Feb 11, 2013

Redemption in Paper and Pencil Shavings

Pixied and imperfect, I was already evolving into an overachiever by the time I trudged into first grade -- yellow rubber boots over navy Lady Janes -- bundled in a nubby, winter coat my grandmother had purchased at Kaufman's the fall before.

Though destined to sweat, I was dressed for success; I was dressed to endure.

My teacher was Miss Peach. Nearing retirement, she was petite but pudgy, doughy as unbaked biscuits -- short gray curls set perfectly in place. Miss Peach was as jovial as she was full of fat and excess flesh. She enforced few rules, so we first graders were more foot-loose-and-fancy-free than straight-laced or prim and proper.

I remember loving the Sally, Dick and Jane books -- a perfect world I could fall into during reading groups, while the rest of the class completed "seat work" outlined on a black board. The world Dick and Jane inhabited felt cozy and carefree -- one where spilt milk and muddy feet were readily forgiven, where a kitten named Puff fluffed stories into fun. I didn't read well aloud, but well enough to mostly maintain my place in the top reading group and develop a love of narrative, its almost-neatness, its nearly-normal -- the predictability of pages turned. I loved the order found in books.

However, way worse than my oral reading, was my penmanship. It was pathetic, at best. It seems the notion of neatness and legibility meant little, if anything, to me, so much so I wonder now if anyone even bothered to explain that the goal of printing was communication -- that what one wrote others were meant to read and comprehend.

That is until Miss Peach held a contest of sorts.

One day in the dead of winter, Pittsburgh piled high with dirty snow, sleet freezing on slick streets, we arrived at our corner classroom to find Miss Peach perched atop a wooden chair in front of the black board, carefully printing a paragraph-long letter to the principal.

When we had put away our coats and hats, mittens and scarves, when we finally sat, hands folded, in nearly neat rows, Miss Peach announced the competition scheduled to play out that day, a drama in our classroom smelling of wet wool and pencil shavings. For seat work that morning, we were supposed to practice our penmanship, copying the letter looming on the board. Whoever reproduced it with the most perfect printing would get to carry his or her letter across the hall and deliver it in-person to the principal.

Suddenly determined, I decided I would win. If it were merely a matter of copying exactly what was on the board, I determined I could do it well enough, that there was no reason not to take the trophy trip across the hall -- perfect printing for the principal.

So, all that morning, I muddled at my desk, thick, blue pencil clutched in cramping fingers. I copied, erased, copied and erased some more, until finally the letters marched a military precision -- parading print across the page.

Then that afternoon, following a lunch of cheese sandwich on white bread, Miss Peach, wearing an emerald polyester dress, announced what I had dreamed of all morning long.

My letter was the best. I had won the printing prize.

In that moment, as I imagined dancing across the hall, the notion of writing, even in its most rudimentary form, became a goal of mine. I fell in love with the printed word, and by implication fell in love with writing itself -- the notion of imitating what I saw -- whether what was on a black board or unfolding all around me.

That afternoon, as frost formed on outside surfaces, as it crept across our classroom windows, I understood the correlation between cause and effect, the literary implications of effort and reward -- a tundra of story left glinting in the glass.


Kathryn blogs at "reinventing the event horizon," where an earlier version of this post appears. She's writing a memoir called Kids Make the Best Bookies, about growing up in a family with organized crime connections.