Monday, May 25, 2009

A Brief History of Things I Have Stolen: Part Two

Part Two: The Purple-Glazed Clay Castle --- Middle School

I'm not proud of it now, and I wasn't back then. As I was doing it--as I was stealing the purple-glazed clay castle that didn't belong to me--I hated myself, but I was too embarrassed about the state of my own castle to do what was right and fess up to my caper.

It was in art class. It was the first time they'd let us do something of substance. Instead of drawing houses or learning about perspective, our teacher was letting us shape small blocks of clay into castle towers that would then get glazed and fired and handed back to us as a shining example of our artistic talent.

My castle sucked. My castle sucked big time. At the end of the first day, my castle was a squat, lopsided thing with very few castle-y qualities. It looked like a melted tower.

At the end of that first day, our art teacher asked us to put our initials on the bottom so we would have no trouble identifying ours the next day. She was going to put them all on one shelf, and when we came in next we'd be able to add detail to our castle--maybe some brick patterns, some spiral staircases, some drawbridges.

I did what was asked. I etched the initials J.S. on the bottom of my fat-bottomed tower and handed it in. I hated it. I was embarrassed by it, especially after seeing it sitting next to all the other castles my classmates had been working on. Some people had done really cool things with their lumps of clay, and it made me jealous. Very jealous.

That's a feeling that hasn't really gone away over the years. I can write, and I am so happy that I can--I'm very, very grateful--but there are some times when I am overwhelmed with jealousy because I see someone who can paint, draw, or play an instrument--anything in a genre of art that is outside my own--and I want to be able to do that so bad I can taste it. Well, on that day in fourth grade, I wanted to be a good sculptor. And I obviously wasn't.

The next day when we came in, our art teacher told us to just go ahead and grab our castles and get to work. She gave us more clay and more etching tools and more supplies for us to make these things really grand.

Well, I marched right over to the shelf where she'd lined our castles up, and I started turning castles over, looking for initials. There were three girls in our class who shared the initials J.S. and I knew I was bound to like one of theirs more than mine.

I knew it was wrong. Of course I did. But--and this is one of my worst, most ugliest character flaws--I like to present myself as a girl who is overly capable, who can do anything you could ever ask her to do. I don't like to show weakness, and I don't like to be anything but the best.

(Here's a good example of my lunacy: I kind of biffed a part of my major comp exams in grad school; I didn't get to finish developing my major arguments because I was distracted. I wasn't watching the time. I had other things on my mind--after all, the Wily Republican had called up only hours before and broke it to me that even though we'd spent that really lovely night together at the beginning of the week, and even though I was one of his favorite people, and even though I was his Girl Friday, he was going to start dating another girl, a little Republican doctor-to-be. From that point on, I had real trouble putting together coherent sentences. And because of that, I didn't come even close to showing my best stuff on my comps. And now, years later, I sometimes bolt awake in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat and thinking, Jesus! Maybe they'll let me retake them so I can write them the way I really meant to! The sickest part of that? I've had this degree for three years now. I think it's time for me to let it go.)

So, back in the art room, I looked at every castle until I found the other two marked J.S. I decided which I liked more. The one I selected was tall, skinny, elegant. It had a nice base and a fancy fluted top. I took it back to my seat.

But my art teacher was less than sure about my selection. "Are you sure that's yours?" she asked.

"Yes," I said, and I felt the lie wrap its arms around my neck.

"I seem to remember yours being a little more--" she tried to be diplomatic, and she searched for the right words. "I remember it being a little shorter and rounder."

"Well," I said, "I worked on it a lot last time. Right before class ended. I worked on it a lot."

Meanwhile, another of the J.S. girls had picked up my fat castle and was taking it back to her desk, happy and clueless.

"Are you sure?" my art teacher asked. "It's very important to be honest about this."

I was caught. She knew everything. She was hip to my heist. But since I was already in it, I figured there was no other choice than to keep playing along.

"I worked so hard," I said. "I know it was a mess, but I fixed it. Doesn't it look better?"

And the art teacher frowned at me, but she nodded. "Okay," she said.

"Okay," I said, and then I went to work making a spiral staircase to climb the side of my castle tower. Now no one would make fun of me. No one would look at my work and think, God--she really stinks! Instead, they'd look at my tall, vaulting tower and nod their heads and smile. They'd think, Now there's a girl who knows her stuff. She's good at everything!

And that's exactly what I've always wanted.

Of course, I haven't yet mentioned the worst part of this story. The worst part is that the two other J.S. girls were two of my best friends. I stole one of their castles--which was lovely--and made it my own, not caring what that would do to them. So that means somewhere at their parents' houses, somewhere deep in the basement where those moldy boxes of archived school work are stored, there is one girl who's stored away a fat clay castle that isn't hers. It's mine. And it's been buried.

The one I stole is in my bedroom at home. I fished it out and put it on my bedside table to be a reminder to me that whole year I was back in Buffalo after grad school--the year I couldn't find a full-time teaching job and spent the year adjuncting. I centered it on that table and said to myself, Don't do this kind of shit ever again.

I didn't mean stealing. I'm fairly confident that I'm not ever going to feel the urge to steal an art project that is superior to mine--even if I am thinking of enrolling in a pottery class this summer, even if I am desperately afraid I am going to suck--but I am afraid I will get too caught up inside my own head and start caring about things that just don't matter. If something I do or say or make isn't perfect, so be it. I've got to learn to live with that. I can't exhaust myself any more with obsessing over all the things I've done that have been just a little bit off. Not everything I do can be perfect, and it's high time I started recognizing that.

So maybe what I need to do this summer--which is the summer of my ten-year high school reunion, our first since graduating--is make amends. Maybe I need to walk up to the other J.S. girls and say, "Listen, Julie. Listen, Jane. I stole something from one of you in middle school, and I'm really sorry about it. But let's just chalk it up to this: I am a control freak, and I am crazy."

And maybe--just maybe--they will forgive me.

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