In 1998 I was sixteen years old and about as lost as a person can be. Then I met Mrs. Gaspari.
As it was, I loved to write. I wrote anything and everything: sonnets, free-form nonsense poetry, essays. You name it, I tried it.
And it all basically sucked.
So when registration for Junior year rolled around and my high school offered a course called “The Process of Writing,” I’m sure you can imagine that it was at the top of my electives list. I was grateful to have several friends that had taken the class who reinforced my expectations, as well as some who were just as interested in taking it with me.
Walking into Mrs. Gaspari’s classroom was like submerging yourself into a warm bath; bubbles somehow filled with acceptance and potential. So many different “kinds” of people filled the desks. You know what I mean; the hopeless romantic, the guy from the wrong side of the tracks, the girl who dressed up like a butterfly, because Wednesday, the jock… and me. I’m just Regular Erin, but I didn’t know what that meant yet. Somehow all of these colorful people converged so comfortably, and Mrs. Gaspari had us move our desks into a circle, get to know each other, open our minds, and start writing.
At the start of class, we would open up a notebook and just spew whatever was bouncing around in our melodramatic minds. By seventh period that could really add up. We had about ten minutes to spill it onto the page, and once in our circle, we could share our hasty handiwork. Sometimes there was poetry, sometimes a scathing summary of a soured sodality, sometimes there were pixies and nymphs beginning some otherworldly odyssey, and sometimes there was me-with curious lists of questions about consciousness or a paragraph about my own inadequacies or awkwardice.
Some of my greatest therapy sessions took place in that notebook.
It wasn’t all just freeform. There were screenplays, memoirs, we even interviewed and wrote about one another. At the end of the course we published our own massive book of collective works entitled “The Wisdom Found In Fortune Cookies,” and damn were we proud of it. Not because we had written something and succeeded on the first try, but because we wrote these pieces, learned to critique them, edit them, rewrite what didn’t work, and watch our drafts grow into polished products that were ready to be presented to the world. Or to our classmates. Whichever.
Sometime around Christmas break that year I decided that if I changed my hair color, went tanning, and lost twenty pounds, I could become the girl I wanted to be.
Holy identity crisis Batman.
So I told Mrs. Gaspari and my classmates about my master plan. I got a few funny looks from the boys in class, a lot of “you’re fine just the way you are”s from the girls in class, and then Mrs. Gaspari did something that nobody expected. She took a Polaroid photo of me (am I aging myself here?) and hung it on her wall. She said she wanted to remember me the way that I was, and that the rest of the kids in class would too. That probably should have gotten through my silly-thick skull, but sure as hell I went home that Christmas break and dyed my hair from platinum blonde to deep burgundy, went tanning every day, drank all of the water on Long Island, and did endless crunches until I went back to school looking like “a new girl.”
Mrs. Gaspari was right. The strangest part of the whole experiment was that my internal monologue changed as well as my appearance. My writing changed. I turned into this vapid, shallow girl so quickly. My writing was shit; like pointless, fake, and worse than it was when I’d first arrived in P.O.W.
How had I gone backward?
By the end of the year I was platinum blonde again. I ate some carbs and got my brain back (as well as my booty) and I met and fell in love with the man that I now call my husband. My ten-minute spewings into that notebook regained their depth and relevance.
My very first writing group, my Process of Writing class with Mrs. Gaspari, got a front row seat to some of my best and worst times. They read and critiqued the products of my most tumultuous era. They helped me find myself when I was lost.
There’s something to be said for the Wisdom Found In Fortune Cookies.