It was May 1, 1996. My 9th-grade English teacher, Mrs. Gaffney, was out sick, and the substitute brought us to the library and told us our assignment was to pick one of the prints on the walls above the bookcases and write a story about it. It was busy work, but an easy 20 out of 20. I chose a picture of an old farmhouse at dusk, and decided to write a story about a girl listening to her grandmother telling stories on a porch in the twilight—the time of day being, of course, a metaphor as light as an anvil.
At the time my grandmother was very, very sick, but I wasn't thinking much about her as I wrote. This was fiction. Where my narrator's grandma told fanciful stories that made her granddaughter doubt if she was 'all there,' mine was still living very much in the present—and was as reluctant as ever to tell any stories about her life. Why did I write that stupid story instead of actually calling my grandmother to tell her I loved her? It was the last night I'd ever have the chance to do it.
But I didn't. I printed the two-page story, tucked it in my notebook, and turned it in to Mrs. Gaffney the following day. And that afternoon, on May 2nd, my grandmother passed away.
A few days later—I can't remember if it was before or after the funeral, which was on May 5th—my teacher passed back our graded writing assignments. I had forgotten all about it, of course, but I felt sick when I remembered what I'd written. The horrible irony of it!
But as if that wasn't bad enough, there was a secondary indignity that pretty much lit the fire under me: Mrs. Gaffney had given me an 18 out of 20. An A-. Mind you, this was the type of assignment we always got 20 out of 20 on. And mind you, I wouldn't have cared if this had been any other day, or any other assignment. I went up to her after class and asked her why she'd given me a lower grade, and she said something to the effect of creative writing being subjectively graded (looking at the print-out right now, it occurs to me that it might have had something to do with the obnoxious font I used). Anyway, I don't think I told Mrs. G. the real reason why I was so upset (there were a ton of overachievers at Mo-town, so complaining about A-minuses happened all the time), but when I got home that night I opened a new word processing document and typed, "I'm going to show Mrs. Gaffney! I'm going to be a writer."
And I did show Mrs. Gaffney, who hightailed it home from her golf tournament one day in July 2007 to hear me read from Mary Modern at the local Barnes & Noble. I've never told her what a big part she played in making me a storyteller, but there it is.