Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Retro week: It's in the details

Before we get to today's journey into the archives, we thought it'd be fun for Friday's linkup to post your favorite Red Writing Hood post you've done. Some of you have had yours syndicated on BlogHer which is amazeballs! But maybe that's not even your favorite. Whatever one is, link it up here this Friday!

And now here's our all-time most popular guest post. It's about the use of description from Kris of Pretty All True.

I write a lot about childhood memories.

Someone recently asked me if I have a photographic memory.

I do not. That suggests to me that I could pull up any moment in my childhood and reproduce it in exact detail. I do not have that ability. My memory is not a videotape of the past. It is not exact.

There is no single version of reality, no complete retelling of a past experience.  That’s why writing is an art. I can take you to where I was, but the place I was? That place has been colored by the passage of time . . . perhaps just a few hours or maybe years and years of living. So really? I can only take you to my memory of the place that was.

And that memory is true and real and perfect to me.

It is not all there is. But it is all I have to offer. So, no . . . I do not have a photographic memory.

But I do remember. I remember a 6th-grade math teacher who used to read aloud to us every Friday afternoon. Can you see her? I can see her. But you cannot.What if I describe her for you as I saw her then from my second-row desk?

She was tall, very tall and thin.  Severe and mannish, despite her long skirts and flowing blouses.She wore strangely bulky shoes and she had an odd gait. Her shoes made a loud uneven clomping sound as she paced before the chalkboard and up and down the aisles to be sure that we understood our math assignments.  She was far too old to have the burgundy-flamed hair that sat atop her pale stern face, but it never once occurred to me at the time that she had not been born with this hair.

Do you see her now?

A few more details . . .She was all angles and sharpness to me, her body thin and strong, her movements tense and purposeful, her voice a biting precise judgment when she spoke. She seemed to me to be my math book come to life . . . exacting, calculating, cold.

She carried a ruler in her hand, her long slender fingers wrapped around its rectangle. With sudden harsh movements, she would reach into the curve of our bodies over our papers to indicate a mistake, a misstep, an error. Her loud commanding voice would announce the failure to the class.

She did not want to be friends with us. She did not invite our confidences. She did not seem aware of our lives outside of her classroom.

And there was this . . . She had one glass eye.

She never acknowledged it. Never spoke of it. But we all knew, and we watched as one cold eye tracked our movements and the other colder eye did not. She did not miss much.

That was my 6th grade math teacher.

Do you see her? I have shared all of these details to tell you of the times when she was that which I have described. So that you will understand the contrast.

The softening.

Every Friday afternoon, she would pull her chair from behind her desk. Roll it to the front of the class. She would go to the back of the classroom door, where she hung her bag and her sweater. Put on her sweater.Reach into her bag for a book. Slip off her shoes and then walk in silent stockinged feet back to her chair.

Settle in.

Open the book . . . she was fond of The Boxcar Children series . . . and she would read to us.

Her reading voice was magic.

Not the voice of my math teacher at all, but instead a fluid feminine floating thing, filled with emotion and nuance and vulnerability.

I was always captured by the transformation. From hard to soft.From harsh to yielding. From plain to beauty.

From teacher to woman.

Always, as she read, the story appeared before me in the classroom air. Not as a picture painted before me, not as a movie played for my amusement against the chalkboard screen, not as a radio play.

No, as she read, the story appeared before me as though I might step into it. As though I was no longer a frightened small girl with too many secrets, but another braver character altogether. I was a girl able to leave the regular world behind and survive on my own. Apart. I was stronger and better version of myself. One of the boxcar children.

Some of the class would fall asleep to the lull of her voice. She never minded. Others would stare out into space, captured by visions within their imaginations.

And one little girl in the second row of desks would occasionally end up with her head buried in her arms to hide her tears. That I was not in fact this braver other from the story.

Just myself instead.

As my teacher was just herself.

My teacher would sometimes lay a hand gently on my head as I gathered my belongings at the end of class, “Have a good weekend, Kris. I will be here when you return on Monday.”

Do you see her now?

I hope so.

Because this is all I have to offer.

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