Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Mining memories

Childhood memories serve many writers as a gateway to story-telling. Childhood is when we start learning how the world works, for better or worse.

My first day of first grade, I sat at a classroom desk for the first time. These were old wooden desks, with hinged tops so that you could store things inside them. Fascinated by my own personal storage unit, pleased with the sight of my books and pencils and ruler neatly stowed inside, I lifted the top to admire the interior. Then closed it. Then lifted it for another irresistible peek. At which point the teacher yelled at me to leave my desktop alone. (Many of my early school memories involve teachers screaming at me not to do things that I had no idea where wrong. And in retrospect, most of them weren't "wrong" so much as violations of arbitrary rules designed solely to keep order.)

In the middle of that year, my family moved, and I went to another school. At the new school, the desktops were not hinged, which was not one of my life's most crushing moments, but disappointing nonetheless. The desks were only open on the back side, turning the desk into a dark cave that you just shoved things into and then retrieved by feel. At the end of the year, you would always find crumpled papers from the previous September waaay in the farthest reaches of the desk.

Most of the desks I had in elementary school also had holes for inkwells, even though we used ballpoint pens and none of us had inkwells. (There's a reminder that no matter whenever we set a story, we shouldn't require everything in the story to be brand new from that year. People keep old and outdated items around for a long time.)

Were I to write a story set in first grade nowadays, I would look at what kind of classroom furniture they have now, to get those details right. But what I wouldn't change would be that mix of novelty, wonder, and pride (my first desk! look at all my stuff inside it!), mixed with harshness and confusion (why is that woman yelling at me?).


  1. Your posts invariably get me thinking. Today it's about those horrible mechanical pencils I had to write with in second grade. Your so right about doing the research, though. This past week I was FLOORED to learn that most 11 year old have cell phones. Couldn't believe it!

    1. I think nowadays, phones are placed into babies' hands in the delivery room. ;-)