I am climbing a steep staircase leading to the attic studio where a famed ballerina teaches dance. The light has drained away, making it difficult for me to find the right room. But I must if I am to study with this woman.
Finally, I reach the top of the stairs, and I see her. More than that, I become her. And I realize simultaneously that I am the teacher, and that I cannot walk. My crutches, scarred, wooden ones, lean against the wall, and I am sitting on the floor, my useless legs hidden beneath my skirt. I crane my neck, put my eye to the keyhole, and watch the class that I am supposed to be teaching.
It is a dream, of course, one of those morning dreams that lingers after I wake. I don’t need to analyze it or the ballerina on crutches. I have agreed to teach a class in writing for publication, and I feel like a fraud.
“It won’t be permanent,” Craig, the friendly school administrator had said when he asked me to take over a Tuesday-night adult school writing class because the real teacher had dropped out. Although I had published freelance articles in magazines, I had not realized my dream of selling a novel, and I had the rejection slips to prove it. Furthermore, I could not speak in public, and the few times I tried, I was silenced by chest-splitting panic attacks.
Yet something in me wanted to accept Craig’s offer, and I tried to talk myself into it. Only eight weeks. “It won’t be permanent.”
“I’ll do it,” I told him.
Tuesday had always been an optimistic day for me, an anything-can-happen day with blue Monday behind and enough of the week ahead for undreamed-of possibilities to occur. But who the hell did I think I was? How did I, a failed novelist, have the audacity to teach this class?
Before the first night arrived, I happened upon this Edith Wharton quote. “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”
Just the mirror. I could do that.
As I drove the thirty minutes to the school that evening, a thought came to me. Focus. Like the lens of a camera. Not wonderful writing, not hopeless writing. Just in or out of focus. Sure, that might work. At least it was a starting place.
When I reached the campus about six-thirty, the downpour had stopped. I parked as close as I could to the classroom and carried my packet of registration materials inside.
I got about halfway across the parking lot, telling myself that it would be okay, when a panic attack hit me. I broke out in a sweat, and my legs turned to water. The anxiety that had plagued me since my early teens had left me alone as long as I avoided airports and shiny, waxed floors. This new undertaking must be as stressful as climbing into a jet. Why had I agreed to do it? And what was I going to do now? For starters, ditch the shoes.
I took off my high-heeled pumps and walked in my stocking feet toward the classroom. It was March. The parking lot was wet from the rain that had left its scent in the air. I didn’t care. My breathing began to return to normal.
“Something wrong with your shoes?” An African American man with short, neatly trimmed hair, immaculate slacks, and leather jacket the color of butter joined me. He held a briefcase, and the way he carried himself telegraphed authority figure loud and clear. All I needed: an administrator to check me out.
Panic attacks teach one to improvise around the truth in any situation. I once faked car trouble on the freeway when anxiety gripped me so hard that I couldn’t drive another mile.
“I always teach in my bare feet,” I told him. “Keeps me grounded.”
“Really?” The lie was so ridiculous that he believed it. “Are you the teacher for the writing class?”
“Yes.” I bit back the impulse to spit out my feeble credentials. “I’m Bonnie.”
“Walter.” He reached out and shook my hand. “My wife suggested it. I’m retired, and I guess she wanted me out of the house one night a week.”
I didn’t know yet that most people lie about why they’re taking a writing class or pursuing any heartfelt goal, for that matter. They’re not going to say, “Oh, yes. I’ve wanted to do this my entire life, but I’ve been too terrified to attempt it, and now whatever happens in this classroom—and with you, who are probably going to tell me that I’m no damned good—is going to make or break my dream.” I wouldn’t have said it, and neither did Walter.
He surveyed the empty room with its elementary-sized desks and box of yellow pencils on the podium.
“Want me to help you sharpen these?”
“I can do it,” I said. “We won’t need more than ten, maybe only five or six.”
He gazed steadily into my eyes. “What if no one else shows up? It happens a lot in these classes.”
“Then we can get some coffee and talk about writing.” I was almost hoping the scenario would play out that way.
Just then, another man came through the door. Then two women. And another.
“Is this the writing class?” asked a redhead about my age in a soft blue denim shirt. She had a San Joaquin Valley accent, one that echoed Southern roots.
“Sure is,” Walter said, and took the registration slip she handed him.
She looked at the pile of slips on my desk. “You need some help with these?”
I nodded. “Do you know what to do with them?”
“I can figure it out.”
Soon close to twenty students sat in those small desks and looked up at me.
Some moments are so clear and defining, that although we don’t know it at the time, they remain with us like visceral photographs. I can see those faces as clearly today as I did then. I can feel the red Macy’s dress I wore with its shawl collar and ridiculous shoulder pads, the black linen summer shoes I placed behind the podium. Most of all, I can feel the fear tightening my throat as I tried to swallow.
It wasn’t about me. It was about them. They were there for the same reasons I had ventured into similar classes, only to be disappointed by someone who didn’t know, didn’t care, or both.
The room began to blur. My hands grew cold and moist. For a moment, I was all hands, all breathing. Count the breaths, I thought, two, three four. Don’t let the panic take over, two, three, four.
Walter took the registration slips from my desk and handed them to the redhead with the drawl.
These people had come out in the rain to be here, two, three, four. You don’t have to be the light, two, three, four. Just the mirror, two, three, four. Just the mirror.
“This class is about writing for profit.” The words escaped my lips, and the students looked up from their desks. “Actually, most writers probably earn minimum wage, if you consider the hours of thought and torment they put into their work.”
The room was silent. What next? The reflection, not the light.
“First, I want to know about you,” I told them. “Tell me what you write or want to write and what you expect to get from this class.”
In the front row, between the redhead and the babe with the hot pink toes, Walter raised his hand. “Walter Smith, retired educator, high school counselor, and army major. I have a series of vignettes, and I’m looking for ways to improve them.”
He turned to the redhead, who was sifting through registration slips and money.
“Ella.” She ran her fingers through her short curly hair. “As you can probably tell, I’m from Oklahoma. I’ve been writing most of my life. Don’t know if I’m any good, though.”
“I’m Gladys, and I feel the same way,” replied a heavyset woman. “I can’t seem to stop though.”
“And you?” I asked a terrified-looking woman in the back of the room. Anxiety buzzed around her like static.
She looked down. “Gloria. I want to write bilingual books for children. Inspirational stories.”
“Do you read children’s books?”
“Oh, yes, but my English is not so good. I hope I am not too stupid to be a writer.”
She had spoken what everyone else, myself included, was feeling.
“I don’t think any of you would want to write if you had no ability.” Once the words were out, I realized that they made sense. “I mean, I don’t feel called to mathematics or brain surgery.”
Even Gloria laughed at that, and I wondered if I was right. Could their desire to do this be strong enough to propel them toward their goals? Could mine?
“Well, I don’t think I’m stupid, and I’ll bet you aren’t either.” The woman with the hot pink toes and jeweled gladiator sandals had what my mother used to call a whiskey tenor. She tapped the notebooks on her desk. “I’m Mary, and I have three finished novels right here. All I want from this class is for you to read them and tell me how to get published.”
Finally some confidence, but I had a feeling that might not be a good thing.
As the rest of the class members began to talk, I was able to respond to their concerns. I had knowledge within me, answers, that I didn’t know I possessed.
I’d never seen a writing class from this perspective. Instead, I had looked at it through the tunnel of my own need. Now, all of these tunnels were directed at me. I tried out my focus idea on them. I liked the lack of judgment in that word. An unfocused manuscript could be brought back into focus. It wasn’t a failure.
By the time the hour expired, more than twenty students had spoken and registered.
They clustered around me. “I want you to read my novels.” Nancy shoved her notebooks onto the podium.
“I brought a little poem,” Gladys said.
Over the sea of heads, I saw Gloria head for the door. Her long dark hair hid her face but not her fear. She glanced over her shoulder at me. “My husband called. I left the oven on at home.”
Before I tried to figure out why Gloria’s husband couldn’t just turn off the oven, Ella nudged closer. Dollar bills and checks fanned out in her hand. “Looks like this class is a go,” she said.
California author Bonnie Hearn Hill taught writing for twenty years, and this selection is from a memoir-in-progress. Her fourteenth novel, IF ANYTHING SHOULD HAPPEN, will publish in the UK in July, 2015 and in the United States four months later. She writes suspense dealing with social justice and women’s issues, and a film based on one of her books is currently in pre-production. Last month, twenty-five years after that first class, her student Gloria’s book was brought out by a large inspirational publisher.