Today I took the time to listen to that little girl, the one who already knew she was a writer. I think she knew that from the time her soul was formed. That little girl always had a story going on inside of her mind, and she was always happy to share those stories. She made up the best games when a group of kids got together, like they were all acting in a wonderful movie. And she was never, ever bored. She could tell stories to herself with a box of crayons. She could tell stories with her fingers dancing on her desk. And my, what amazing lives her toys and dolls did live.
She wrote short stories and songs when she was still in grade school, but it wasn’t until she got to middle school, into eighth grade, that she had a longer story in her head. She bought a special notebook for that story, and she started writing. She took it with her everywhere, and she wrote anytime she had a few spare minutes. She even shared it with other people. Writing that story was one of the most exciting and satisfying things she had ever done, and she wanted to do that all the time.
One day she was waiting for a class to start, for her English class to start, and she had her notebook out and was writing. She was caught up in her story, and she truly loved the world that was taking shape under her pen. The English teacher walked up beside her and asked what she was doing. She looked up and smiled, and she said I’m writing a novel. With no warning at all, the English teacher told everyone in the class what she was doing, but he didn’t say it in a nice or encouraging way. He said it in a mean way, a way that hurt.
He told everyone in the class how stupid it was that the girl actually thought she had something worth saying, that anyone would ever want to read her novel. The kids in the room, some of them at least, laughed at that. The English teacher didn’t notice how red the girl’s face was, and he didn’t notice the tears in her eyes. He didn’t notice the way she sank down in her seat and tried to disappear from the world.
Or if he did notice, he didn’t understand. Or maybe he didn’t care.
She decided it was all her fault for writing stories in the first place. She decided it was all her fault because she told the truth about what she was doing instead of hiding and being ashamed before the English teacher made her ashamed. The girl stopped writing for a long, long time.
The girl went on to do very well in high school, but still she didn’t write anything as joyful and free as that novel she once loved to write. Her teachers in high school loved what she wrote for other assignments, and one or two of them encouraged her to write more. The girl was way too scared to do that. She was too scared writing would hurt her so badly again. What the girl had learned from that English teacher that awful day was writing, and especially telling people what she wrote, would cause her a lot of pain and embarrassment. She learned she would be exposed and made fun of and told she was wasting time. She didn’t want to do any of those things anymore.
During her first year of college, the girl met other people who were writers. She met teachers who could see that she had been born with the ability and the need to tell stories. She had friends who loved what she wrote, and who encouraged her to write more. When she changed colleges for her second year, she decided to take an advanced writing class to see how she could do. She was still convinced that writing fiction and telling stories was a waste of time and too dangerous, but she would write essays and poems sometimes. That class was full of senior English majors, and the girl kept quiet and to herself most of the time because she was sure they were all far beyond what she could ever do.
One day, the English teacher took the girl aside after class, and she was so afraid she just wasn’t good enough for the class. She was sure that’s what the teacher was going to tell her. Instead the English teacher scared her much worse than that. She told the girl she was clearly the best writer in the class, and that she wanted to use one of her papers as an example for all the others. The girl was so afraid, but some part of her was so relieved and happy. When the English teacher read her paper out loud, the girl was terrified that someone would find out she had written it.
Hearing her words and the teacher saying what was good about them felt great, but she sat very still and looked straight ahead. People asked who had written it, and the teacher wouldn’t say. The girl heard the others trying to figure it out, but she stayed quiet. It wasn’t until weeks later when the girl wore a shirt from her first college that one of the boys in the class looked at her and said “It was you!”
She was so scared again, and she thought she’d been stupid to wear that shirt. But she looked at the boy and she said yes, it was me. And the boy wasn’t mean, and he didn’t make fun of her. The boy looked at her in such an admiring way that a tiny bit of the girl’s broken heart healed that day.
Years went by, and the girl started to hear stories in her mind again. She was brave enough to write a few short ones down, and she even let a few people read them. She thought she might want to write more fiction, but she was still shy about it. Then not long after she moved to another city, a bigger story started to form in her mind. This story wanted to be told, so badly it wanted to be told. The girl wrote just a small part of it down, and she thought it was finished. That story kept growing and wanting more of her attention, and after even more years went by, one of the characters in that story found the girl on the other side of the world.
That character wanted to tell his story so badly that he traveled all that way to find her. And when he found her, he worked and worked so hard to get her attention. And when he finally did, he whispered in her ear that she hadn’t understood him. She thought he was bad and mean, but he wasn’t. He just wanted to be heard, and he wanted her to know who he was. He knew no one else on that great big world would be able to tell his story. No one else would be brave enough to try.
When the girl started to listen to that character, she finally started to understand who she really was too. She wasn’t a waste of time or useless because she heard stories in her head. Hearing those stories in her head was a gift, a gift she had always had. Once she felt that gift, she could hear what the stories were so much more clearly. Once she loved that gift, she could fall in love with the character who wanted so badly to find her and all of the other characters too. Writing the stories became as easy as breathing.
Now the girl is standing at the edge of another big change in her life, and in her writing. The girl is ready to share her stories with the world. She understands that she’s not going to run out of stories, and that even two long novels won’t be the end of her stories. She knows in her heart that writing more stories will only lead to writing more stories. The people who have read her books tell her they’re good, and she’s finally starting to believe that. The only problem is the girl is still so very afraid. She’s afraid of that English teacher, the mean one who made fun of her and made her feel so terribly bad so long ago. She’s afraid if she shares her stories, if she puts them out into the world, that the whole world will turn into that awful classroom where it seemed like everyone was laughing.
She can see now that that English teacher was only a little boy, a little boy who was hurt so much worse than the girl ever has been. He was hurt so badly by something, or someone, that all he could ever do was hurt other people. And he was hurt so badly that hurting other grownups wouldn’t help him feel better. He could only hurt children, make them feel ashamed and embarrassed, make them feel like they were no good. That is a lot of pain that little boy carried around with him. None of that makes what he did to the girl alright, and none of that makes a single word he said to the little girl true. It only means the girl understands why he was so mean and unhappy. What he said to her and about her that day was not true. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. Nothing about that day was right, and nothing about that day was the girl’s fault. The girl is ready to leave that hurt little boy English teacher behind in the past where he needs to stay.
She won’t forget how much that hurt though, how hard it was to feel like no one understood her and how she wanted to tell stories, how she needed to tell them. She wants to help other little girls and little boys not feel that way, not ever! Whenever she can, the girl spends time with other girls who want to tell stories. She spends time with other girls who need to tell stories. She talks to them about writing, and how writing and reading about someone else’s life can make her life make a lot more sense. She answers questions and she encourages them, and they have so much fun together. The girl wants to do that same thing with more kids too, to help them understand that writing and telling stories isn’t stupid or silly or a waste of time.
Stories matter, very much. By helping other kids understand that, she will be learning that herself over and over and over again. The girl wants to help teachers and parents understand that too when she can, that stories matter, and kids who want to tell stories are awesome kids indeed. They’re kids who can touch the heart and mind and soul of another in a way a lot of people can’t. They can feel how others feel, think how others think, and live the life of the others. Those are amazing gifts, and that kind of understanding and imagination are gifts to all of us. Taking care of those kids, and the big kids who got hurt like the girl did, is such an important thing. Every time the girl is able to help someone else not feel bad or strange or weird about having stories, she feels a little bit better too.
If the girl could go back in time, she would stop what happened to that little girl. This is what really happened. The grownup girl walked right up to that English teacher when he started saying the bad things. She told him he had to stop and not say another word. She told him she was going to take the little girl out of that room and away from him forever. She told him she was sorry that he was hurt so badly. She told him being hurt never, ever made it alright to hurt other people on purpose. She talked to the school and make sure the English teacher was never able to hurt another child again. And she took the little girl somewhere fun, and they talked about how important and wonderful stories and writing really are, and what an amazing gift it is to have stories inside of your mind. And the little girl felt safe, and she felt so brave and strong.
And the little girl told the grown up girl how important and wonderful stories and writing really are. And she told the grownup girl what an amazing gift it is to have stories inside of your mind. And the little girl told the grownup girl to be brave and strong, and that she is safe. She has always been safe.
And the little girl will help the grownup girl share their stories with the whole world.