And then it hit me….I’ve got a term paper to write! Except…I don’t.
There’s just something about spring that makes me remember those school days when I was going to have to write something. My grade depended on it.
And with the passing of Mattoon High School English teacher Mary Nolan, I couldn’t help but think about this even more; she was my teacher for sophomore year’s dreaded “Term Paper” class; a course whose very name told you what you were not going to be able to avoid: 7-9 pages, single topic, properly researched, with references and works cited page. Gulp.
Excluding the half a semester I was deemed worthy enough to be a part of Humboldt Grade School’s “Monday Math Masters,” or the time I was the only fifth grader in Mr. Gibbons class selected to tag along like a hyperactive puppy with the “so grown up” sixth graders to the Eco-Meet -- where my inability to focus or to care much about poison sumac pretty much sank the team -- most of the time I was too hopped up on allergy meds and too obsessed with my Nintendo to care too much about anything school-related…except writing.
The earliest “formal” thing I can ever remember writing may have been in the third grade, when I competed in the exact same Illinois Young Authors competition featured here from the 1980 Journal Gazette. I recall that I cared less about the content of whatever sci-fi garbage I had written than I did about how it all looked on the page; one chapter per Mead notebook page, with chapter titles in a jagged “action” font at the top and with a crude Bic Pen drawing of spaceships firing zap-rays at the bottom. I read comic books…I knew what I was doing.
Two things happened in Ms. Nolan’s class that changed me forever. For one, she had us read Shirley Jackson’s classic short story “The Lottery”, a still-brilliant nightmare version of the kind of usual “folksy” rural puke that most teachers made me read all through grade school.
The other thing, and this is going to seem a little self-serving even by my usual standards, was the day I visited my trusty guidance counselor to find some way out of trigonometry only to find out that Ms. Nolan had apparently been in there earlier that day thinking I had dropped her class saying, “But Clint’s the best writer I have.”
At that age, only Honor Society sucks up ever cared about what a teacher thought, and folks, I was way too much of a sulky “too cool for school” teenager with my grubby windbreaker over alternating Pink Floyd or Husker Du T-shirts to even pretend to care, but I have to say, it got to me. So I decided it was time to straighten up and fly right, at least in her class, which up to that point I was probably just getting by in, usually just jawing with my friend Kari in the back of the classroom and wondering if we could use the blood drive as an excuse to get out of class early.
One day, as I hunkered down in the MHS library trying desperately to shore up the research I had for my paper on “censorship in music” (pause for eye-roll); reference copies of the Rolling Stone album guide (second edition, natch) in front of me as I wrote my quotes on little index cards (a system I continued to use all the way up until my first year in grad school), Ms. Nolan came around, and upon seeing the card that said “[thrash metal band] Slayer is Tipper Gore’s worst nightmare”, she read it out loud and laughed. At which point I realized that I was (a.) probably headed in the right direction, and (b.), one of my teachers actually knew who Slayer was.
Friends, you can take all the notes you want, but sooner or later, you gotta start writin’, and you just know I waited until the Sunday before it was due to do it. I barricaded myself in my family’s always-cluttered “computer room” and told myself I wouldn’t leave until it was done, and about seven hours later (if you’re doing the math that’s almost a page per hour), out I walked, with my first ever term paper, crafted by hand on our IBM compatible PC, on a pre-Windows word processing program, and printed on one of those dot matrix printers with the big rollers.
I grabbed a soda from the fridge and headed directly to the couch as the printer screeched like a demon; a cold Fresca and the video for Paula Abdul’s 1995 song “My Love is For Real” never ever tasted and/or sounded so good. I was king of all creation, albeit a king too stupid to realize his “chosen” talent had just set him on a path where he’d have to spend many, many “last second nights” doing it all over again.
Even now, trying now to finish up this very column in time, I wonder what I’d say to myself if I could go back and tell that moody teenage version of me from the grunge era that someday, many years later, he’d still have about 70 percent of his hair. And that, most importantly, he’d be writing 1,000 words each week, usually about old video games and records, for the very same newspaper he grew up seeing on the kitchen table every morning.
And if, by chance, I’d be met with a disbelieving glare through messy bangs, I’d retort: “Alright smart guy…you know your friend Kari? Yeah…she’s got the chicken pox…and now you have it. Enjoy making up a weeks’ worth of homework!”
And for the record, I didn’t enjoy it; for chicken pox at 16 is no joke. And as for making up all that homework, sure chemistry teacher Miss Pontbriant didn’t fall for my attempt to make her think I actually came in after school to make up all of those Stoichiometry assignments. But hey, at least I knew that my term paper was done, right?