The topic on the blackboard spelled “If I had a million”. It was English class and our little group of solemn ten year olds were supposed to come up with ideas for a short essay on what we would do if we had a million in hand.
The teacher decided we’d spend one class brainstorming, then go home, write the essay and bring it back the next day. So she gave us a couple of minutes to think it over, discuss with our friends and then went around the class, asking people what they’d do.
There’s nothing and nobody quite so sanctimonious as a ten year old trying to tap into her/his better nature, so one by one we came out with the most amazingly saintly projects that required our mythical cash. We were going to set up old age homes, orphanages, fund neighborhood projects, clean up the streets – if I remember correctly, someone was even going to help drug addicts. You could practically see the halo hovering over all our heads and an invisible choir of angels was singing its heart out.
Another thing you could see? The big fat frown on our teacher’s face. We were beginning to get a little nervous – how good did one have to be before it was good enough to bring a smile of approval to her face? Maybe somebody could fund a national flagellation house where people could go whip themselves as a part of a Satyagraha to stop… things that needed stopping?
Finally, it was my turn.
“I’ll fund a project,” I said, and saw the teacher’s face fall another inch, “that helps poor women and their children.” (Yes, I was a ten year old bleeding heart liberal feminist. I have always been this way, thank you.)
“Okay,” she said unenthusiastically. “Next.”
Well! I sat down in a huff. What kind of an unfeeling monster sat unmoved at the thought of poor women and their poor children? They could be starving or victims of domestic abuse or living on the streets and turning to a life of crime. Didn’t she care? I was beginning to feel a bit lachrymose myself by this point. The next few benches met with the same amount of success. Plans to set up schools in rural India and drill wells for those who had no safe drinking water didn’t make an impact either.
And so we came to the last kid – a young man I will call Spongebob (not his real name). Spongebob, to put it in plain terms, was what we call the class idiot. He sort of ambled through life, inhabiting the bottom rung of every subject and earning the scorn of all the proper little swots that lived in the lofty heights of the honor list. And even the ones that just barely scraped through, for that matter. Because, you see, they scraped through and he didn’t. And that was all that mattered when you were a kid in school. So Spongebob tottered to his feet (he always tottered – I don’t know why. It’s like he was flunking gravity along with every other subject) as the rest of us gazed down from our smug clouds and said,
“If I had a million rupees, I would eat and sleep.”
Then he blinked at us and sat down.
The class erupted into laughter. He would do what? Ha ha, look at Spongebob! What a retard! Except…
The teacher loved his answer. She loved it like puppies love blankets and kittens love string. Like, she gave him a round of applause and held him up as an example. In what must have been karmic justice, he took it with the same amount of enthusiasm as she’d shown our well meaning answers. He hadn’t been trying to be clever or different in any way – he was just stating a simple fact that seemed so obvious to him as to be brain dead. Why wouldn’t you take it easy if you had a million heating up your pocket?
But for me, it was the single most important lesson I have ever had in the art of writing: to focus on what was real to me before I began worrying about audience. I’d been writing things (mostly really bad poetry that rhymed and a couple of short stories centered around things like the Ebola virus) for a while by then and I had already caught the reading bug in a bad way but as everyone giggled in class that day, it was as though someone had thrown open a door in my mind.
If I had to recreate my thoughts from that long ago day, it would I know how to do this. Not in a Oh, I can do this better than he can sort of way, but in a Oh, I see what I’ve been missing all this while way.
I went back home and wrote a smart-alecky essay based on my real feelings, which had nothing to do with poverty: I asked that the money be handed over in dollars (the exchange rate back then was waaaay better obviously) or pounds and said I’d blow it all on good living. I got an A. I really enjoyed getting it and the words had come so easily, it felt like I had done no work for it at all. And as suddenly as that, I was staring a possible career in the face.
Spongebob dropped out of my consciousness in seventh or eighth grade – I think he flunked out or left the school or something. We didn’t really hang out. He’s probably a completely different person today and wouldn’t recognize me if his life depended on it. If I ever meet him again though, I’d like to buy him a drink. I owe that guy.