I was teased mercilessly in elementary school. I was the weird kid. The smelly kid. The kid with the bad haircut; the second hand, ill-fitting clothes. I was picked last on every sports team. I was talked about, pointed at, giggled at and ostracized. I wanted to fit in, but I didn't have the right anything to be in 'The Cool Club'.
That all changed one day in grade 7. For one unforgettable and life-changing afternoon, not only did I get let into 'The Cool Club', I was the queen of it. So what if I had to violate my conscience and sacrifice everything I believed in. I was in!
Here is how it happened.
As I said, I wasn't an athlete, but there was one talent I had in spades. I could write. I wanted to be a writer after graduation. That was my desire for as long as I could remember.
The girls in 'The Cool Club' didn't like one of the other girls in the school. I don't know why (who ever knows with 'cool' girls). I remember that the girl's name was Rhonda and I didn't know her well, but she had never done anything to me, so what I did next can only be described as cruel and heartless. It was out of character for me, but I did it and the ramifications of what I did changed the entire course of my life. Forever. I think Dr. Phil calls it 'a pivotal moment'. Not that I watch him often, but the few times I have caught his show, I've heard him say that.
So, my ticket to 'The Cool Club' came in the form of a song with warped lyrics. I could write stories, poems and songs from a very young age. By age 12, I had written tons and tons of lyrics. I wouldn't say they were all worthy of a prize, but they were preparing me to become a good songwriter/lyricist later on in life. I wrote a ridiculously cruel song about Rhonda. It took all of five minutes to write. Can I remember the lyrics? Not word for word, but it was about 'dog food'. "Puppykins dog food" was the title and it went on and on about how much you would hate to eat this dog food "unless you're like Rhonda... arf arf arf". I insinuated that she was a dog and in 1976, that was one of the worst things you could call a girl. It sure pales by today's comparisons, but back in the day, I was being very insulting. Again, this girl had done nothing to me and I knew... I knew fully well that what I was doing was wrong, but the girls in 'The Cool Club' were so taken with the song that I was basically knighted and inducted into 'The Cool Club' Hall of Fame instantly.
For a whole afternoon, I got to hang out with the cool girls and do their cool things (which in retrospect were utterly boring). They wanted to eat lunch with me and they smiled at me and, for a change, I wasn't the object of their cruelty. It was usually me, but now I was in. The geek was in with the chic! I had sacrificed poor Rhonda to the wolves to preserve my own position in the school hierarchy.
I know I know. You must be so disappointed in me. Does it make you feel better to know that my conscience was pricked to the core later that day when I heard the girls from 'The Cool Club' singing my song to Rhonda, who curled up in the corner and just sobbed and sobbed? It was the most bitter victory of my life. Hurray! I was cool... and a girl was crying her eyes out. I literally felt like I had sold my soul to the devil.
Things got worse for me. Much worse. Be sure your sin will find you out!
I had a teacher named Maureen McEwen. I liked her. She was tall and thin and matronly. If I was born to be a writer, Mrs. McEwen was born to be a teacher. She was strict, but fair and she could even be fun.
Maureen McEwen heard the kids singing my song, taunting poor Rhonda. She saw Rhonda crying. Do you know what? She didn't even have to ask. She knew 'the cool girls' and she knew they couldn't come up with something like that. I mean, for all of its malice, the lines were clever. She had budding scientists and mathematicians and artists in her class, but she only had one that the teachers called 'a gifted writer'. She recognized my work as if I had signed my name to it. I was doomed and my time in 'The Cool Club' was almost up.
I was walking down the hall towards my classroom when Mrs. McEwen stopped me dead in my tracks. She had me in the corner. Her bony finger impaled me as it pointed towards my guilty heart. I was shaking in my shoes before she even spoke.
"Did you write a song about Rhonda?"
I wanted to deny it, but my face was already blushing. "Yes."
It would have been easier if she had said, "Then go to the principal's office" or "Write me some lines" or "You've got detention". NO! Not this teacher. She was going to follow through and teach this lesson in a way that I couldn't forget.
"Sing it for me."
"Sing the song for me. Right now. All of it."
I did not want to sing it to her. Not only because it was the teacher I was singing to, but every word of that song stabbed my conscience so hard that it was hard not to cry myself. What had possessed me to do such a thing? To hurt somebody else just because I wanted to be liked?
I sang the song in a pretty shaky voice. It was the longest 30 seconds of my life. It was like I was standing before God singing something dirty.
There were a few seconds of silence before Mrs. McEwen's finger pointed at me again like a rapier. The words she spoke next are etched in my brain like a brand. I have never ever forgotten it and it has been like a rudder for my ship all these years.
"You use that God-given talent for good."
And then, she walked away.
I was booted from 'The Cool Club' that day and good riddance to them. I couldn't tell you most of their names now.
I was 12 years old then. I'm 45 now and, do you know what, I hear Mrs. McEwen's words ringing in my ears every time I write songs, plays, stories... anything! It forever changed my course. It may have saved my life in some ways. That teacher didn't only teach me reading and writing. She mentored me. She steered my life in the right direction.
Every time I write, I think of her. I try to do the best job I can to be a good writer and, even when I'm writing about something difficult, to do it with lots of grace; to never deliberately malign people with it.
A few years ago, Mrs. McEwen passed away and I went to her wake. Two of her sisters were there, who were also teachers by profession. I had the privilege of sharing this story with them. I wanted them to know that I considered that moment with their sister, to be the most important and impacting moment in all of my years of schooling. You should have seen the smiles on their faces. They knew me as well. Could it be that she knew? Did she see my writing? Did she hear my songs? Did it ever occur to her that she was a beacon shining for me and saying, "This is the way. Walk ye in it"?
This Thanksgiving, I am thankful for the teacher who cared.