Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl – Age 9
Langston Hughes and I go back to fourth grade. Mrs. Slattery’s class. That was year I challenged the notion of who, I think, I knew myself to be. I tried to be loud, bold, and whatever else I thought the cool kids were. That year I actually missed “specials” for talking in the line! (And I liked me some “specials”)!
As I turned around one day, excused from the line to the library for talking, (one of my favorite “specials” of course other than Mrs. Cannon’s art class–shocker I know) I was dejected and a little taken aback. Now I was one of those kids even though for that first quarter that is exactly who I had tried to be anyway.
Trying to play off my fear and confusion (what happens when kids get “sent back to the classroom?” I had never been one of the cool, of-er-um one of those kids) I had no idea what to expect. So for the benefit of my classmates and my rep, I performed the best nonchalant walk I could manage in my brown leather Docksiders.
Mrs. Slattery returned to the room after the others had gotten settled in the library. I sat at my desk, not waiting and wondering what would happen for long, for she came straight to me to remind me that “I wasn’t like that.”
The fake ’em out cool kid facade wasn’t working? My attempts at it that day didn’t last beyond the first couple of her sentences! I was in tears as she reminded me that she knew my mother, that my parents would not want me to act like this, that I wasn’t like that and that my grades reflected the truth. So the chattering and posturing had to stop. “You won’t tell will you?” I managed.
Whether my shenanagins stopped immediately or continued at all I don’t remember.
I do remember that not long after me and Mrs. Slattery’s conversation Langston Hughes made my acquaintance. It was during Silent Reading, a period after recess during which we could select books from our in-class reading corner, read the books we’d checked out from the library or brought from home, and on some occasions, listen to Mrs. Slattery read a chapter from the class book that we were all required to read, Dear Mr. Henshaw.
I picked up the book of poems and read his biography. He was African American and we shared the same birthday! That was all I needed to know.
From then on Langston was not only alright with me, but I declared him my favorite writer, replacing Judy Blume and whomever wrote the Encyclopoedia Brown series.
I knew little of his work and really less about the pieces I did know: “Mother to Sun,” “Harlem,” other than it wasn’t Robert Frost (whom I also love(d). Frost’s pastoral scenes were replaced in Hughes’ work by places and people I didn’t have to imagine because I could readily recognize them.
By the next year, I was regularly writing poetry and equally pitiful short stories in my notebooks with the plastic spirals choosing my pencils over my voice. It’s kind of been that way since.