This is not the first time I have blogged about my ninth-grade English teacher and it probably won’t be the last. Frank Barone was the single-most influential teacher I had in my growing up years. He not only saw I had the potential to do something with my writing he took every chance he could, with every assignment I wrote for him, to affirm that budding and yet raw talent.
I met him when I was 14 years old and in freshman comp. Our first assignment was to write about something that mattered to us, and I suppose what mattered to me most then was letting my storytelling brain have access to school assignments. Because what I turned in was a short story.
I don’t remember toiling over the words or pondering the tiny plot, I just remember – rather vividly – sitting in his classroom the next day and having him read my story out loud to the class. That’s how much he liked it. He didn’t warn me ahead of time, he just sat in the circle of students (no rows in Frank Barone’s classroom, always instead a circle), read it and then smiled. I have never forgotten that moment of supreme validation as a writer, even though it occurred 41 years ago.
Frank and I have kept in touch over the decades and get together for cappuccino now and then. He’s retired but still writes, plays golf, and teases poetry out of the ordinariness of a quiet life. We have often talked of that first story I wrote for him because we both remember it.
Imagine my delight a few days ago when I found that story in an old notebook that I hadn’t opened in decades; the very story Frank read aloud and which launched my writing career in a rather unique way. (Unique because I waited until I was in my early 40s to write my first novel. And yet it was that remembered moment in ninth grade that finally gave me the confidence to try).
I was already planning to see Frank this week. I spoke to a library book club very close to his home that he attended. I was telling the group how I became a writer and what I had found while looking for something else that week. I told them Frank was seated among them and did they want me to read the story that changed everything for me? Oh, yes, they did. It was then my turn to read that little tale aloud and make someone’s day.
And yes, we had a cappuccino afterward and he gave me his newest book of poetry and we basked in the fellowship of words and life and the years between us.
How could I not share this with you! I especially love his comments on this paper, which he penned 41 years ago:
“Yes. I like this.
This is good writing.
You have shown me this experience, Susie.
We can feel the tension.
We can almost taste the “hated oatmeal.”
How wonderful it is to be able to say that I did.
What follows is the story, which for whatever reason, I left untitled. Enjoy, and if you’re a teacher, I salute you. You change lives…
Untitled by S. Horning (that’s me)
The day seemed almost perfect.
When she awoke that morning the sun was a flood of beams pouring through the cracks in the closed curtains. She could hear the clinking noise of pots and pans downstairs, which meant she had overslept.
“Everyone else must be downstairs eating,” she thought to herself.
She rose out of bed and began to descend the stairs. As she reached the kitchen door she smelled the terrifying stench.
“Oh, no,” she said silently. “Could it be?…”
She went into the kitchen, and to her horror IT was there. Her father and mother were sitting at the table but IT didn’t seem to be bothering them. They acted as if nothing was wrong.
“How could they?” she thought. “Why are they doing this to me?”
She stared at IT for a long time and IT stared right back at her. When she could bear it no longer, she turned and began to walk out.
“You hold it right there, young lady. Where do you think you’re going?
“You heard your mother.”
“No buts. You march right back here.”
She started to walk back, but no, no, she just couldn’t bear it. With a quick pivot she darted toward the door. Her mother grabbed her arm and began dragging her back to the kitchen. She tried angrily to release herself from her mother’s grip, but it was no use. She looked in the direction where her father was sitting but he made no move to rescue her.
When at last she saw that it would have to be done, she sat down. Giving a final sigh, she began to eat the hated oatmeal.
(But of course it wasn’t!)