In 7th grade, two great things happened: a boy liked me and I discovered the boundless world of writing, not necessarily in that order.
Up until then, I coasted along under the radar. After my dad got stationed in Ft. Dix, I became the new pariah in 5th grade at Newcomb Middle School. I quickly earned the disgust of my teacher, Ms. Rogers, who took to calling me a “moron” and a “lunatic,” because she said I was too “boy crazy” to care about my grades.
After the public humiliation, I worked harder to achieve straight As in 6th grade. When I told Ms. Rogers, she beamed, as if waiting for the sun to come out from the clouds.
English came naturally. I used to be bi-lingual, fluent in both English and Korean until my American Army sergeant dad drummed the foreigner out of me as much as he could so as to better assimilate. Math went over my head, but I enjoyed reading a lot, not thinking much of it.
Then, The Powers That Be placed me in 7th grade English Honors class, by the window and across the room from Bobby, the first boy who ever took notice of me. Every so often, he would glance my way, shy yet helplessly intoxicated by whatever the hell it was that attracted him to me.
Despite that distraction, I flourished in Mrs. Feutschwager’s [sic] English Honors class. That’s when another miracle happened.
Before every new lesson, she would pick up one of her favorite books, reading stories to us, bringing characters to life. I remember discovering O. Henry and the magnificent brilliance of the short story form, falling in love with his and Edgar Allan Poe’s twists and turns, attempting to mimic them with my own efforts.
I remember re-discovering my love for the Westerns my father used to adore watching, feeling the hairs on my arms stand up reading “Shane, the 1946 Jack Schaefer novel that set the tone for a multitude of Hollywood’s quiet anti-heroes to come.
But one day, Mrs. F picked up a history book about D-Day, and the famous Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. The way she brought this fateful day to life was 10 times better than any Spielberg movie. I almost felt the blinding terror down to the bones of these young men as they parachuted out of military planes into the water, not knowing if they would even make the plunge.
The words she read didn’t just tell the true story of Normandy. They showed us, in living color, as if we were side by side with these ordinary American men doing their duty and rising up as heroes.
We talk of heroes today in a cavalier, knee-jerk fashion, completely out of context, because that’s what we do as lazy, arrogant bystanders who think we’ve got all our shit together. But these men were heroes.
In the right hands, with the right spirit, words can do more than agitate. They can almost literally transport the reader into another’s soul.
It took two more years before I realized I had a small spark of an ability as a budding writer, when fate put me in the position to be the first-ever underclassman to head up a high school newspaper as the editor-in-chief. That year, Aiea High School won its first statewide journalism competition as “Most Improved.” The 11th annual competition was sponsored by the Hawaii Publishers Association.
I’m also the only alumna from our award-winning, three-year Ka Leo O Aiea staff to pursue an actual journalism degree, and parlay that into a career as a reporter.
Today, at 51, I try to live up to the high standards of those amazing writers and that amazing teacher who instilled in me a love for something bigger than myself. I apply everything I’ve ever learned, the mistakes, the humiliation, the small, quiet triumphs, the under-the-radar, outsider status, to tell other people’s stories as if I’ve lived them too.
I’m nowhere near the level of an O.Henry. But damn, it’s so fucking awesome getting there.