In high school, my English teacher accused me of cheating on a test on Of Mice and Men. Obviously, my memories of this are tainted by emotion, but the gist of her accusation was that she didn’t think I was smart enough to get all the answers right on the test by myself.
I was a horrible student, but I wasn’t a cheater. I read voraciously, but I read the books I chose, not the books that were assigned in school. I skimmed Frankenstein, but stayed up past bedtime with a flashlight to read Phantom of the Opera. I didn’t make it past the second chapter of A Separate Piece, but I wore out the binding on my copy of The Lords of Discipline. The Scarlet Letter bored me to tears, but I had quotes I’d copied from My Antonia taped to my bedroom wall.
I did, however, love Of Mice and Men so much that I read it three times, even though it was an assigned book. I was already a huge Steinbeck fan. East of Eden and Travels With Charley were two of my favorite books. I hung on every little detail about Lennie and George and pictured the story in my head like it was a movie. When a question on the test asked what Curley’s wife’s dress looked like, I described it in full detail easily. I almost felt like I had seen it. That answer (which apparently, no one else got right), along with my perfect score, raised a big red flag to my English teacher, Mrs. X, who thought my performance on the test was well beyond my cognitive abilities.
I knew I didn’t cheat, but Mrs. X was a grown-up and a teacher, and at fifteen years old, those credentials were strong enough to make me doubt myself. I was convinced that my perfect score was a fluke – a combination of good guesses and good luck – and deep down, I didn’t really think I was smart enough either. Eighteen years later, I still remember so clearly how I felt, standing in Mrs. X’s classroom, my face hot, my heart thumping. I dug my fingernails into my sweaty palm to try to keep myself from crying. It didn’t work.
The rest of my high school career was full of flukes. Failed tests followed by 100%. An A+ paper followed by one that came back covered in angry red marks. I pulled it together at the end. I did okay on the SATs, wrote good application essays, and got in to every college I applied to. I worried that was a fluke too. When I got to Ithaca, I felt as if any minute someone would tap me on the shoulder and say, “Sweetie, there’s been a mistake. You don’t belong here.”
Second semester freshman year, I started falling asleep in my biology class. The teacher talked like Ben Stein and stood in front of the screen when he wrote notes on the overhead projector, so we couldn’t see what we were supposed to be writing down. I’ve never been the kind of person who can fall asleep in a public places, but ten minutes in to every biology class, I’d start to nod off. I went to my advisor and told him I thought I was narcoleptic (because I’d just watched a documentary on narcolepsy). He sent me to academic support services and soon after I was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder.
There’s a book about Adult ADD called You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid or Crazy? The title is such a perfect description of how I felt when I was diagnosed and started learning more about ADD. It took me many, many years and so much floundering to change my perception of myself – to neutralize Mrs. X’s opinion of me (and all the other opinions like hers that I’d collected over the years).
J and I joked for the longest time that in place of a dedication in my book it should say, “To Mrs. X . . . Suck it.” Don’t worry. It doesn’t. My book has a real dedication, and I decided to make a point of thanking the teachers who have helped and supported me in the acknowledgments section in the back. You won’t find mention of Mrs. X in the book at all. But I will admit, that “Mrs. X can suck it!” is my version of shouting “Victory!”
When my amazing agent, (who works for the agency that represented John Steinbeck and sold Of Mice and Men), offered me representation, J and I walked around the house saying, “Mrs. X can suck it!” for days. When I called J at work with the news that STAY was sold to Dutton, that it would be an audio book, or that it sold in Germany, Italy, and Holland, I shouted “Mrs. X can suck it!” into the phone. It’s as good a war cry as any.
I spoke at a writing seminar at Hilton High School two weeks ago. One of the kids asked me if I’d known I wanted to be a writer when I was in high school. I told him that until I was diagnosed with ADD, I honestly didn’t think I had all that much to offer. Back then, it wouldn’t have even occurred to me that my life now was possible. I told the class not to let other people’s ideas of who they are get in the way of the things they want for themselves. I had to dig my nails into my palm to keep myself from getting choked up.
I’d like to give Mrs. X the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to think that maybe she was trying to help me. Maybe she said the right words and in the mess of all my emotions I heard them wrong. Maybe she was just having a bad day. I really do believe that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Maybe if I hadn’t had to fight as hard to get here, this wouldn’t mean as much. Maybe I wouldn’t even be a writer. Whatever Mrs. X’s intentions, that day in her classroom is a part of who I am.
Last week, my publicist e-mailed me a blurb about STAY from Kirkus Reviews:
“A charming debut. . . . Smart and with emotional depth, this is a cut above.”
J walked into my office just after I got the e-mail and found me in tears.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“Mrs. X,” I said, sobbing and laughing at the same time as I handed him my laptop, “can so totally suck it.”