I wrote my first novel at age fifteen. I still have the dog-eared manuscript, embossed with words created by the typewriter that my parents bought me for Christmas—so I could finish my story, get it published and make a million dollars.
(They were also faithful lottery ticket buyers—just saying.)
I sent it to McLelland and Stewart in Toronto, a publisher which now belongs to Penguin-Random House, but back then it was our premiere publisher of Canadian authors.
I received a lovely rejection letter—not a form—from an editor who obviously wanted to encourage and nurture a naïve young Canadian writer. She told me not to give up, to keep writing and gave me a list of publishers who published teens.
A more competitive person who took constructive criticism well wouldn’t let a rejection break her. But I was none of those things. I believed it was a sign that I wasn’t meant to succeed, so I tore up the letter, threw the manuscript in my drawer and didn’t write again until I was well into my thirties, with a background in public relations and with a husband and three children.
I tell this story because my experience as a writer and as a person is of one who has always felt isolated, as though I existed permanently outside the circle. Most of what I’ve written so far, including this little piece I offer here, has this flavour.
I wrote a young adult novel called Rachel’s Manifesto in 2007 and decided to self-publish in 2011 after almost selling it to another Toronto publisher. Since I was lucky enough to marry an artistic guy who has some skills with drawing pencils, we decided to produce a couple of picture storybooks as well, Please Let Me In (2014) and Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast (2015). You can read more about my work at www.codepoetmedia.com
Special thanks to Allan Hudson for including me as a guest blogger. It is good—very good—to find that I do belong to a tribe after all.
A minute of silenceCopyright is held by the author. Used by permission. Drawings compliments of Kent & Sophie Bulmer.
My stomach is in my throat and a tremble courses through my body when I realize I’m next. By my reaction, you’d think I was about to be taken to prison where I would be bound and whipped, sexually assaulted and then strangled with my bedcovers.
No. No such luck.
I’m about to give a speech.
A one-minute impromptu speech worth ten marks, to be specific. Every year, grade eight English students do a unit on speeches, led by Mrs. Penney, and she delights in the torture. She’s tall, with shoulder-length blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin peppered with scars—looks like she had bad acne when she was a teen. Is that why she has no compassion on people like me? I may have smooth skin, but I want to vomit at the thought of being the centre of attention.
“Rose Harrison. Rosie, you’re up.”
I hear my name and I stand up and walk to the back of the room, where Mrs. Penney is seated and I kick myself for not faking sick this morning. I thought about it. I tossed and turned all night. My eyes were open until the first pink light of dawn. But I knew to stay home would only put it off for one more day.
Because speeches--like death—are inevitable. Someday, you’re going to have to give one, and for me, today is the day.
Mrs. Penney offers me a baseball cap filled with slips of paper. I stick my hand in the cap and I try to hide my shaky fingers when I pull out a folded slip. I unfold the paper and read the word, while the collective gaze of all my fellow students focuses on my back, like a laser pinpoint of criticism.
The single word is written in blue pen, but it might as well have been written in Russian, because I can’t remember anything about snow right now. As I walk to the front of the class and whirl around to face my execution, I realize my brain is useless. Have I been hacked? Maybe all my words have leaked out through the holes my classmates are boring in my head with their eyes.
The teacher looks at me. “You got it?”
I swallow and nod.
She clicks a stopwatch. “Okay… go.”
My glasses slip down my nose. I swallow hard and push them back up with my forefinger. I shift my weight from one rubbery leg to the other. “Well, my topic is… snow…” I scramble for words but it seems they’ve all been sucked out of my head, like air out of a balloon.
I wish I could disappear. Or have aliens light upon the roof and in a giant spotlight, dematerialize me, never to return. How about an earthquake—an earthquake is certain to interrupt my speech. At least it would be more interesting than my latest public failure.
I swallow hard and feel my armpits getting moist and I’m nauseous. One whole minute to talk about snow? What is there to say about snow for a whole minute?
One minute doesn’t seem like a long time until I’m standing in front of a roomful of my classmates who already think I’m an idiot—including that snotface Chelsea Carroll. Not the smartest girl in the room either, but a great athlete. She has quads as tight as drums and runs like the wind. Once, in gym class, she said, “Come on, Rosie, suck in that gut,” while she measured my waist for a unit we did on fitness.
“Uh…S-s-snow is… white.”
“And it’s-s cold …”
I shouldn’t mumble. I’ll lose marks for that. Snow is white and cold—come on, Rose, you can’t think of anything else?
The room is silent except for the sound of the stop watch. I stare at the floor or the ceiling or the walls, because I can’t bear to look at my classmates. Marty Milner is at the back. He’s the one who likes to put dimes in his mouth and scratch them against his teeth. Yuck.
But I can hear him make that funny “swhoosh” sound when he laughs. Mrs. Penney scolds him with her eyes when I glance up through my eyelashes. I shift my weight again and see the slip of paper on the floor. I must have dropped it. I pick it up and look at the word again.
“It’s spelled S-N-O-W.” I hear a rumble of giggles. Mrs. Penney shushes everyone.
Tick. Tock. Who knew a minute could last forever?
I force myself to look up. Marty and his buddies are sprawled in their seats at the back. They think this is so funny. He did his speech yesterday about a bar of soap. He talked about how he stole it from the Holiday Inn and how it smells like flowers so he gave it to his mother and she cried and never saw anything so beautiful. I wish I’d thought of that. How much more can you say about soap than snow?
Paige Larson feels sorry for me. I can see it in her freckled face and her narrowed green eyes. She is the smart student with perfect marks, who juggles her duties as student council vice-president and captain of the girls’ basketball team and manages to be an all-round great person. Her father is the local high school principal and their family lives, breathes and talks about school activities and science and math and blah, blah, blah. How can someone bore you but make you feel stupid and unaccomplished all at the same time?
“Thirty seconds,” announces Mrs. Penney from the back. Thirty seconds! I stifle a groan and gaze at my empty chair.
Wait. “Snow falls from the sky in the winter. From…clouds. But I don’t know—how that works.”
Sheila James laughs out loud and then muffles it with her hand. She turns her face toward the wall. I bite my lip and curl my toes inside my shoes.
“Okay, Rose, you can sit down,” Mrs. Penney says in a soft voice. She must have decided to take pity on me, because my minute wasn’t up. I’m relieved and humiliated at the same time.
My desk is in front of Smarty Marty. I dive into my chair and cast a hopeful look to the ceiling. Alien abduction would still be useful right now. Marty leans over and hits me in the elbow before I hear his whisper in my ear.
“I like s-s-s-s-now, too. It’s c-c-c-cold.”
I shoot him a nasty look over my shoulder. “Shut up. I’ll do better next time.”
Then I turn my head to the window on the opposite side of the room. It’s a gray day, late in March when most of the snow is gone, except the dirty patches under the trees, but the spring buds haven’t broken through. In fact, we usually have a few freak storms all the way through April. This winter had been so much more cold and dreary than other seasons I remember and we had a record number of storms. It took forever to shovel out of the driveway, and we don’t have a snow blower. Dad says I’m his snow blower.
But Dad and I made a seven-foot snowman this year—it’s a family tradition to build one after the first big storm of the year, but we had a lot more snow to work with this season, and it was the perfect packing temperature—
Then I bang my head with my fist and stare straight ahead. Yeesh. There’s so many things I could have said. What’s wrong with me? Why does my mind go blank under pressure?
Stupid brain. Stupid friends. Stupid school. Stupid me.
“Yeah, I can’t wait to hear your next one,” Marty says, still in my ear and laughing. “You know the speech next week is three minutes long, right? Maybe you can record yours on video.”
My stomach lurches at the news. I look at him, dead serious. “With any luck, I’ll be in prison by then.”
Thank you Rhonda for sharing your delightful tale on the Scribbler.
Rhonda Herrington Bulmer is a writer-for-hire who lives in Moncton, New Brunswick (www.codepoetmedia.com and www.ladywriter.ca ). She has self-published three books and is working on another. Luckily, she has not had to make a speech for many years now.
Next week on the Scribbler you will have a chance to read one of my favorite short stories - Two Grumpy Old Men Café. It has been published in SHORTS Vol.1
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