I remember when I discovered I could write.
In college at Villanova, I didn’t bring much enthusiasm to my coursework. Basketball? Yes. Classes? Not so much, especially any not related to my computer science major.
My freshman year humanities class, taught by a middle aged priest with penchants for smoking cigarettes and chasing away squirrels, covered several standard classics. I recall Plato’s Cave and Shakespeare’s Othello.
This professor had a reputation for tough grades. Word filtered to my classmates and I that no one ever scored better than a B on the first assignment or two, and that an A was the rarest achievement at any point during his classes.
For each work we covered, students would write a paper in response to a prompt.
Plato came first. I don’t remember the prompt or the nature of what I wrote. I do remember my level of effort and my grade: middling and a C.
The assignment that came next makes me think about the peculiar nature of human memory.
While I can remember fine details as if they were yesterday, many broad strokes — including what the book in question even was — are lost to me.
Here’s what I do remember.
I had so little interest in the assignment and the work — which, again, I can’t even remember — I of course procrastinated, not even thinking about what I might write. All the way until almost midnight the morning before the paper came due.
At that point I finally sat down and …
After waking in the morning, I could scarcely recall having written — which I chalked up to fatigue — but on my desk sat several printed pages. I didn’t even look at it. I assumed it was another mediocre paper. I didn’t care. I put it in my bag and left for class.
A week went by.
At the beginning of class, the professor passed out the graded papers. He called each student up to pick up their work, addressing them as Mr. or Ms. Lastname, which felt rather like being in fourth grade again.
I knew something was off when he finished handing back the papers without ever calling my name.
Did I somehow forget to turn in my assignment? I wondered.
After the late-morning lesson he gestured for me to walk over. He quietly asked me to come by his office after class that afternoon.
I sat through lunch with my friends, hardly paying attention to their loud argument about fantasy football, as I sweated over this upcoming meeting.
My paper must have been terrible, I thought. He’s going to scold me. He’s going to ask me if I’m serious about wanting to be in college. I’ve been here for two months and he’s figured out I don’t belong.
I stepped into his office, on the small side, but with large mahogany bookcases lining opposing walls, and a small couch perpendicular to a leather chair providing a seating space. He invited me to sit with him.
He looked at me quietly for an agonizing amount of time. When you’re eighteen, holding that space is torture.
Finally he asked me if I knew why I was there.
Expecting him to tear me down, I admitted I had my suspicions.
He stared at me again, before reaching into a green folder and handing my paper to me.
But something didn’t look right. All the punctuation was missing.
I stared at him, puzzled. He handed me a pen with the instruction, “I want you to put the punctuation back.”
What the fuck? This makes no sense. Is this some weird dig at me?
Confused, I did my best to re-punctuate it, not knowing if I could repeat the original use of semi-arbitrary semicolons.
Finished after a few minutes, I gave it back to him. He flipped through the unstapled pages. Quietly. Too quietly.
Looking up at me, he blurted out, “You wrote this.” It wasn’t a question.
“Uh, yes?” I stammered back. I still didn’t understand what he was getting at.
He fixed me with that stare again. “You’re sure that you didn’t have someone else write this for you.” A statement.
“Um, yes. I’m definitely sure of that.”
He sighed, then smiled slightly. “Okay then.”
The professor reached behind, to his desk, and grabbed a pen, before scrawling a big A on the upper right corner of the first page.
He returned the paper and dismissed me into the sunny mid-October afternoon.
Only when I got outside did it sink all the way in.
This paper was so much better than my first one he thought I must have cheated.
Now, maybe there’s a version of my story where this event serves as a pivotal turning point of some sort.
I sit down and reflect. Think. Consider.
I realize that I have a gift I can nurture, something worth pursuing, and switch my major from computer science.
Or I recognize that it feels good to be a vessel for the creative to flow through me, and I seek more of it.
Perhaps. But that’s not the story I remember.
Instead, this happening just meant I could procrastinate and still get good enough grades.
We are all accumulations of our stories, which can be reinterpreted and infused with new meanings over time.
This story I tell means something totally different to me at thirty-four than it did at eighteen.
It’s one of the events I remember most vividly from that time in my life. It’s been there, maybe, just waiting for me to return to it at last, with new meaning, new life.
So here I am. Yes, I am a writer. A poet. I can see ways in which I’m walking in my own footsteps, that this path has been here all along.
I told you this story of when I discovered I could write.
And in telling you this story, I’ve shared with you my discovery that I must write.