English was one of my favorite classes in the eighth grade. I liked everything about it: grammar, reading, and, especially, the writing assignments.
Miss Polanski announced one day, “Students, next week submit a story about an exciting event that happened in your life.” The kids all groaned. “Well, then — if your life was that boring, invent something. But it had better be good.”
I couldn’t wait to dazzle my teacher with a good tale. I started early by making a list of hair-raising events in my life:
- when my brother fell out of a second story window
- when I caught my sister’s lip in a zipper
- when a charging bull ruined our picnic
- when my brother almost cremated us in our corn stalk teepee
- when my uncle put me in the washing machine
To me, my topics sounded boring and common, so I decided to invent a story that was way better than anything on that list. I worked on my creation all week long and let my imagination run wild, inserting a little bit of action and lots of big words so it would sound sophisticated. I was terribly impressed with the results, and I knew Miss Polanski would be, too.
I was certain if there were a Pulitzer Prize for eighth grade students, I would win it. I pictured the teacher’s note after the “A” I would get: “Elizabeth, see me after class to discuss your promising future as a writer.”
When our assignments were due a week later, my best friend and I were eating a “gourmet” lunch in the school cafeteria. Suddenly, Shirley interrupted her chewing, slapped her forehead, and said, “OH, NO! I forgot to write my story!”
Half-eaten fish sticks muffled her words, but I got the gist of it and jumped to her rescue. “Shirley, I’ll write your story. We’ve got a whole half hour before the class starts.”
She finished chewing, swallowed hard, and accepted my offer.
There wasn’t time to weigh my choices. I grabbed something from my head and slammed it onto paper. I felt exhilarated after belting out words that had rescued my best friend, and we laughed all through the day about our noontime writing frenzy. On the way home from school, Shirley joked, “Lizzie, wouldn’t it be funny if I got a better grade than you?”
“No,” I snorted. “I don’t think that would be funny at all.” And we exploded into fits of laughter.
The next week I could hardly wait for our stories to be returned. I anticipated being asked to read mine to the class, but it didn’t happen. Shirley’s bad joke came true: she got the better grade. I was numb. I had dashed her story off in thirty minutes and it got an “A.”
I got a C+.
The worst part was the note below my friend’s “A”: “Shirley, have you ever considered writing as a career?”
I almost screamed, “YES, MISS POLANSKI — I HAVE!” I wanted to confess that I was the author of Shirley’s adventure story. But my best friend said, “Lizzie, I know how you feel, but think about this: we’ll BOTH get a failing grade if you tell.”
I was as gloomy as an eighth grade girl could be and despondent all day long. But I learned more from that experience than from any teacher. I learned never to do another person’s job if they can do it for themselves. I also discovered that grueling, hard work might be good … but fast is sometimes better.
Interesting note: the department of education for North Carolina uses this story as part of the end of the year testing for 8th grade grade language arts students. I guess that’s the Pulitzer Prize I had hoped to get in my own 8th grade English class, but who knew? A team of language arts teachers found stories for the test in published books and this one first appeared in the anthology titled “Chocolate for a Teen’s Spirit published 2002 by Simon & Schuster