Or; I Learned to Read Before My Brother and it’s Basically All Downhill From There
The following piece won first place in the Amoskeag poetry writing contest. Emily is a junior from Greenfield, NH.
If I’m being honest, my love affair with writing started with a haiku. “Women are weaklings” the first line touted. “I’m strong enough to carry” the second line retorted, before the final line, “Your body to the woods.” I have got to say, the dark twist hooked me. It hooked me so much in fact, when my teacher told us to pick one of the free writes we penned in Sophomore English last year, to finalize for the final exam, I chose to take a list of things I hated, and proceeded to make it into a giant compilation of hateful haikus. If we’re going for specifics, I wrote nineteen mean hearted haikus, while the rest were a compilation of apologies for the list in the first place. It was undeniably the most fun I’ve ever had taking an exam, though most of them were poorly constructed and made no sense if you hadn’t read the list… but I digress. It was the form of writing I loved most, over the many years of my literate experience. Poetry was a way to passive aggressively mumble about how I felt, and as a mumbly teenager, this had endless appeal. To learn why speaking quietly and rudely, with a hint of disinterested aloofness is my preferred method of communication; we must first explore my history with the written word.
I taught myself to read when I was three years old. Even as a young child, I was constantly suspicious that people were doing things without me. My house was filled with books that many people have never even heard of. This is not because my parents were underground book dealers or eclectic collectors of the rare and beautiful, but because they were weird.
Really, the books in my house were collections of obscure child novelists that never took off, Magic Tree House books that were too hard, then entirely too easy for me to read, and journals on holistic healings that are better left undiscussed. My envy of people who could read these books knew no bounds. After all, my father and sister seemed to get endless hours of entertainment from them, and as a toddler who took it upon herself to be the center of attention all the time, I needed to know what was more interesting than I. I was intensely jealous, and demanded that my sister teach me the alphabet. In all her ten-year-old glory, she complied, thinking she would humor me. Once I had mastered the sounds each letter made, I tore into the first book I could find. It was about a worm named Worm, and he was trying to find a way to beat the heat.
I must have read that book twenty times before I understood what a worm was, and then what “the” meant, and then that f-a-n meant fan, but once I got there, I went crazy. I tore through the series of basic picture books showing Worm doing mundane activities that to someone not allowed to use the stove, was like reading about someone doing wheelies on a motorcycle and setting things on fire for fun. I read about a cat named Tabby, and other animals whose name were more of a definition. I read Mr. Putter and Tabby, then Henry and Mudge, and all the books in their respective series. By the time I finished, I was four, entering kindergarten, and firmly back as the center of everyone’s attention. To put it simply, I had never been happier.
I remember that fateful day in Kindergarten when my teacher challenged another student with particularly nice writing to transcribe a whole sentence. Fueled by tiny toddler fury that I had not been put in the spotlight instead, I proceeded to write two paragraphs about my weekend, complete with scribbled illustrations drawn by broken crayons I snapped at the unfairness of it all. My teacher, when she came over to check on me, (I assume because my face was splotchy red with rage directed at the fickleness of life) looked at my journal, back at me, and left the room. She came back with the learning skills teacher, and from then on I was branded with a title that would bring me both great pride and embarrassment: Gifted.
Progressing through elementary school, my mother always read me bedtime stories. We would switch off who read, often choosing a book she had been meaning to read. This explains my immense discomfort with knitting mysteries and colonial teenage romances, and my burning hatred for Anne of Green Gables. Although poor Anne never did anything to me, my unstilted reading voice separated me from most of my peers, who were all sounding out each word, letter by letter. I was so self-conscious I once tried imitating their slow, separated reading, until my mother repeatedly told me how proud she and my dad were of how well I read. This, however, did nothing to deter me from intentionally bombing spelling tests. These failings eventually turned into a real problem, and to this day, I can’t pass anything handwritten in to my teachers, because my stupendous lack of phonetic skill is truly mind-boggling.
It’s not that I didn’t like writing. I loved to write, and when we made poetry books in the first grade, despite the poor spelling, my teacher was so impressed with the fact that I was using personification and metaphors, she kept my book and brought it to a convention. After reading my cute little poems about the different times of day and weather, many people asked her what grade she taught, and if one of her students did this. When she said yes, and first grade, she took immense pride in the dumbstruck looks on their faces. While this only inflated my ego even more, it also exiled me from the other kids. They did not welcome the special assignments I had to do in addition to their work. It made them feel stupid, and they were not afraid to tell me how mean I was being by being smarter than everyone else.
Being in second grade and knowing you’re smarter than everyone, and that they all hate you for it, kind of sucks. It’s the kind of suck that makes you blame yourself, which makes you kind of grumpy, which makes you kind of mean. And while we’re being honest, being mean doesn’t make you too many friends. Having a really grumpy and borderline offensive sense of humor however, does make you hilarious. And being hilarious sets the foundation for great writing.
Now, this isn’t to say that just because someone’s funny it makes him or her a good writer, or that people who don’t write with constant humor aren’t great writers. Being a grumpy kid with an awful sense of humor myself, I started to read some books with narrators or authors with dry wits. Then I read some more, then even more, and then I started to write.
Or at least, I tried to write, before learning that trying to write is awful and that when you read over what you’ve done, there is possibly nothing else in the world that you hate more than that piece of writing. I tried to write, but could never find words that I didn’t immediately regret. Then, I found poetry.
The beauty of the haiku is that no matter how much you hate it, you can always just make another one. If you don’t like the word choice in line one, fine, change it, but do it in another haiku. You not only write more, but you finish with something that doesn’t make you want to throw your computer out a window. Once I started writing haikus, I wrote other poems and before I knew it, I was writing sprawling pages about a multitude of different events and ideas—but they all had one thing in common: they were all about women.
Something I constantly mumble at my dad when we’re watching TV is that the show needs to do it again, but this time with more ladies. Is it a show about pirates in space? How about lady pirates? A high intensity drama about an ex-addict turned beat cop? Guess who the main character should be! That’s right, a lady. It overflowed to the point where the following conversation became commonplace in front of the TV. “Do it again.” I’d growl. By this time, he’d learned the automatic response. More ladies would undoubtedly be the answer, but more often than not, I felt like no one was hearing the problem to begin with.
So I started writing about the girls and women that I could imagine on my TV screen. Women who could rip a door off it’s hinges, and those who would rather not because they just got their nails done. Women who cried, women who went down fighting, women who wanted someone to love, women who didn’t need anyone. I wrote about women who got up and moved on, and those who couldn’t help but be stuck in the past. I wrote about all of these things, and the radical notion that all of them could exist in one woman.
The lack of diverse and multifaceted women in media is extremely disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that I sucked you into this with the story of how I came to literacy, only for you to be stuck on the end of an essay about gender representation in the media that you definitely didn’t sign up for. The most important thing I have learned—be it through books, movies, TV, or poems, is that there is not one character who doesn’t matter; Harry Potter matters, Katniss Everdeen matters, even the people on 30 Rock matter, and they do terrible things to each other every week. The flattening of women as a gender, through stereotypes and broad generalizations goes directly against this notion of universal importance, no matter who someone is.
The story of my rise to literacy is one plagued with hard facts. As a grumpy teenager who sees the problem, with no one willing to listen to her answer, being literate is endlessly frustrating. Hearing people say feminism (There, I did it, I said the f-word, we can all relax now.) is a waste of time and that feminists are both killjoys and against men in general, doesn’t only get disheartening, it gets boring. It’s why I’ve stopped yelling and started mumbling, but more importantly, it’s why I understand the gender riots that are happening all over the world; I just don’t understand why they ever stop.