Nyssa Jo Wallace
I smooth out the three hand written papers sitting on my desk, double sided, slick composition paper, bright white with no red side margins. The other 3rd grade kids in my group do the same, digging through the narrow cubbies in the front of their desks to pull out homework assignments stored in folders or pressed between the lessons of textbooks. The desks’ placement resemble a table of four, each student facing a different direction. I glance over to see even Jenn only had a single sheet of paper.
Spelling is my worst subject, but this was the most enjoyable homework I had ever done. I wrote a story. The assignment asked us to use at least 5 of the 10 spelling words in a story. I used all of them in my story about a toucan and a giraffe who had a tea party.
“Do you think Mrs S is going to let us play outside today?” Jenn’s fist props up her chin, eyes following Mrs S around the room, taking assignments, papers fluttering and jostling in her hands. “I want to check the bird’s nest.”
Did birds nest in fall? Surely they didn’t use nests built by kids in a playground, woven sticks sitting on the ground in a bed of stones. But Jenn is smart, so she would know. I’m not allowed near the bird’s nest that the other girl’s built. I don’t know why.
“It’s warm,” one of the boys replies. “I hope so.”
Mrs S may be close enough to hear but doesn’t comment. She takes Jenn’s homework first, a clean sheet of white paper with perfect handwriting. Jenn always gets stickers on her tests.
I’m lucky to pass mine.
But this time I hand Mrs S my papers proudly.
Mrs S pauses, leafing through the pages, skimming my writing over the top of her narrow glasses. “What is all this?”
“My story,” I reply. “It was part of the homework.”
“You were supposed to write a paragraph,” she states, inserting the pages to the back of her stack. “This is why it takes you so long to do your homework.”
Only a few days ago, I accidentally let slip that it took me all evening to do my homework. I start when I arrive home from school and don’t finish until bedtime. I only stop long enough to eat supper.
“I don’t want to hear about the amount of homework you receive ever again.” Mrs. S continues to the next table.
Something inside me deflates. I look to Jenn, hoping for some form of compassion. Her nose wrinkles. Her brow quirks in that way I can’t replicate. I know that look well.
Stupid kids don’t get to help the other girls build bird’s nests at recess.
After lunch, the class files into our sixth grade science room, laden with more than our text books. For 15 minutes, we read or write. The school mandates it. Students roll eyes at the rule. Teachers seem annoyed by it. But every week, our English teacher gives a writing assignment. Honestly, they aren’t very interesting. Usually, it’s about another class or the assigned reading book. Neither interest me.
So instead, I’m writing a novel.
We trudge to our assigned seats around gray, rectangular tables. All other classes have desks, but science projects are done in groups. Jenn sits beside me. Even when we moved from elementary school to middle school, we always have the same classes together. I don’t know why, but it’s nice having a familiar face in the crowd of strangers. She opens one of the Narnia books. I had read about three books from that series, but I didn’t like them.
I slip my science textbook under my chair, the metal rack adhered there to keep them off the floor. I pull out my spiral ringed notebook, the blue one with an owl flying across the cover, and opened it to the last page I worked on.
The novel is a self-insert fantasy about going to summer camp with magical powers, comparable to Harry Potter. I never went to summer camp before; that was something rich kids and stars in movies did. I go to a Christian day camp during my summers, but imagining going to a magical forest with your best friend and fighting evil spirits sounded much more exciting. It’s my daily 15 minute escape to pretend I don’t struggle with my grades or am mediocre at every extra-curricular I attempt.
Whitney reads it between classes. I met her this year, one of the few people I felt comfortable talking to. Jenn said she wants to read it too, but when she saw the length, she decided to read it when it was published. I tried not to feel hurt.
That day, though, Mrs M had different plans for the class.
“I have been told that some of you aren’t getting your English assignments done on time. I want everyone to be working on that.”
My English composition notebook was tucked away in my locker. I raise my hand as Jenn stores her book under her chair to grab the manila notebook with red tape binding. I’m not the only one to raise a hand, but Mrs M stands closest to me. “Can I go to my locker to get my English work?”
Her eyes swivel to the spiral notebook in front of me, clearly filled with writing. “What’s that?”
I glance at it, closing the notebook, Hedwig staring at the two of us. “A book I write for fun.”
She snorts. “Why?”
The vent fan buzzes awfully loudly. I don’t know how to respond. My hands feel slick.
“You have other things to be doing. I don’t want to see you working on that in my classroom. Go get your English homework.”
Why does it matter if it wasn’t my English homework? I turn my assignments in on time. Doesn’t the school encourage writing? Isn’t it something teachers are always pushing?
Apparently, I’m wrong.
I stand, holding the notebook to my chest as Jenn muffles her laughter. As the teacher tells everyone to follow if needed, I skirt to my locker as quickly as I can to get the correct notebook.
Why Ms D’s classroom is set up with tables instead of normal desks is beyond me. Maybe the theater class needs them to practice lines? But I enjoy sitting across from Edi. She’s in a different grade, so we rarely get to be in the same classes, but we met at day camp and clicked. Even four years later, we call each other every weekend to watch anime together.
Open windows ventilate the stuffy room, but with the blinds closed, no sun could enter. Shame. Natural light is said to help with creativity, but apparently teens aren’t allowed to look out the window to a semi-filled parking lot.
Edi grins as Ms D makes her way around the room, handing back our creative writing assignments. “How pissed do you think she got?”
“At what?” I pretend not to know.
Every assignment she hands back is a typed, one-sided printer page. When Ms D got to our table, she hands a single page to Edi, a single page to the girl sitting beside her, and five pages to me.
“I appreciate your enthusiasm,” she mutters, “but perhaps stick closer to the word count.” The same sentiment is written in red on the rubric stabled to the top of the pages.
I shrug. She gave a minimum word count, not a maximum.
She stalks away to begin her half-assed attempt to teach creative writing. Giving random prompts to write is not teaching. She should be showing us how to craft scenes, create realistic dialog, incorporate symbolism, or develop deep characters. She either doesn’t understand that or doesn’t care.
“What’d you get?” Edi whispers, leaning over the desk to see the rubric.
“An A.” I flip the papers so she could read it better. “I followed the rules. Not my fault she didn’t put a maximum word count.” I lean back in my chair, waiting for the next assignment to be given, leg crossed over the other. “Besides, if Ms Demon-Spawn fails me in English honors, then this is revenge.”
“You won’t fail,” Edi rolls her eyes, sliding the papers back to me. “You’re too smart for that.”
From that day forward, Ms D put a word limit on her assignments.