As a child, usually while I was having a temper tantrum, my father would sing me The Rolling Stones. It wasn’t for the song, so much as for the sentiment. My dad would quote the immortal wisdom of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you just might find, you get what you need.” As wise and right as the advice was, it always infuriated me. I never understood why I couldn’t get everything I wanted.
It was the first day of my last month of attending Green Meadows, yet another private, progressive school that shared its name with an air freshener and used to be a house.
One of only three fifth graders in an all-girl, fourth/fifth grade combo class, I was the second oldest kid in the entire school. The other girls all dressed like extras from Children of the Corn. They wore overalls, which made them look like they worked at a farm supply store, and had long pigtails, that made them look like they were in a religious cult.
I, on the other hand, wore a lot of wide-brimmed hats, and my favorite Leave Me Alone t-shirt given to me by my anarchist babysitter. Based on fashion alone, I was an outcast. But that wouldn’t have mattered if I’d been good at handball. Handball was the Children’s only social currency and the great equalizer of all cliques at Green Meadows.
I sucked at handball.
Therefore, I spent my recesses discussing my yard duty, Beth’s tumultuous relationship with her boyfriend Pablo, and writing my mystery novella series, Casey and Lacy’s Preteen Detective Agency.
In class we’d been studying pilgrims. I found this rather apt since my time at Green Meadows had begun to feel like I was living through my own Salem Witch Trials. For example, one Child of the Corn saw my nail polish and told me red was “the color of Satan.”
On that first day of the last month before summer, we found a stack of ten dusty books waiting for us in our classroom. My teacher Alison told us we’d each choose a book, each one titled a different trade from Colonial Williamsburg. This would be the subject for a report, and more importantly, our character for the school’s upcoming Colonial Day Play.
She called my name first. I sifted through the list of colonial characters. The Weaver, The Brickmaker, The Blacksmith, The Wigmaker, The Cooper, The Housewife, The Cabinetmaker, The Milliner, The Caulker, and The Shoemaker.
Being a Blacksmith sounded boring. I had not the faintest idea what a Cooper was and had no intention of finding out. Soapmaker? Pass. I had just learned last week that tallow was soap made from animal fat.
So, I chose the only woman in the whole group, The Housewife. She seemed ripe for social commentary. Or maybe it was just because I was going through a phase where I refused to wear pants.
A few of the girls moaned as I made my choice. They wanted The Housewife because they thought it would be easy. I thought that I’d rather forge anvils by a burning fire, or collect dead animals off the road for soap, than be a socially marginalized nutrition factory for screaming babies and die of boredom at thirty-two (all opinions of which I planned on covering in my report).
After all choices were made, everyone was instructed to use SSR, Sustained Silent Reading, to study their books.
That was when Jean, our principle, came into our classroom and called me into her office.
I’d been terrified of Jean since the first week of school. I’d witnessed her giving my classmate a ceremonial “birthday spanking.” The classmate bent down and Jean pretended to smack her butt ten times for the ten years she’d been alive. I was horrified and conspicuously absent when my own birthday rolled around in March.
I was surprised to find our art teacher, Barbara, or “Bawbawa,” as she pronounced her own name, saying “r”s like “w”s, in Jean’s office. Bawbawa was in her sixties. She wore long skirts and knee-length flowy cardigans, all, I assumed, bought from the “progressive art teacher stereotype” catalogue.
“Am I in trouble?” I braced myself for the answer.
The two women looked at each other, amused.
“No, of couwse not Annamawie,” Bawbawa said.
They told me they had been reading my writing and decided they would like me to write the Colonial Day play.
And that’s all it took: two people I had very little respect for, who had a modicum of authority over me, to tell me I was good enough at writing to take on this responsibility. Suddenly, I’d been transformed. Transformed into a playwright, the way Shakespeare spelled it. And suddenly, I no longer cared I didn’t fit in with my peers. They weren’t my peers anymore. They were my actors.
Jean and Bawbawa said they would help me. I politely nodded, all while thinking, “Yeah, right, like I’m going to let either of you touch my play.”
Every day for two weeks during SSR, I’d work on my play. I called it A Williamsburg Mystery. I found Colonial Williamsburg the perfect setting for a ghastly murder where everyone was a suspect.
The gruff Blacksmith made the perfect red herring. No one would suspect the docile Wigmaker of having murderous intentions. And my character, The Housewife, was the dash of comic relief; a woman who beats her children (historically accurate according to the textbook) who constantly tidies up other peoples’ homes…and perhaps the evidence?
I was enraptured with my play. In all my years since, I don’t think I’ve ever loved anything I’ve written more.
At home, I began constructing my replica of a colonial kitchen. My best friend Marina helped me steal a 4 x 5 foot piece of wood from behind a grocery store and paint it on my front lawn. And since Marina and her little sister, Naïda, would already be on their school’s summer break, they agreed to be my kids in the play.
I was positively giddy the day Bawbawa and Jean entered the classroom, holding smooth, warm copies of my script. I knew the Children of the Corn wouldn’t be pleased, but I was too pleased with myself to care.
Whispers spread throughout the nest of the Children.
Someone demanded, “Why does she get to write the play?”
I waited for Jean and Bawbawa to sing my praises as a child prodigy.
“Well, her aunt is a famous actress, so she knows a lot about this stuff.”
My ego turned a deep shade of purple from the bruise. My aunt’s acting career had nothing to do with me. So little to do with me, an aspiring fifth grade playwright, that I didn’t even add this information about my aunt for foreshadowing at the beginning of this story. That’s how out of the blue this was.
I thought they’d chosen me for my rapier wit and sharp social commentary. For my innate understanding of story structure. I thought I’d earned it on my own.
But in one sentence, they’d invalidated me.
I thought there was nothing worse than this. In my life, nothing worse had ever happened.
Normally, as you grow up, the little things that wound you when you’re young are outweighed by real life slapping you sharply in the face as you grow up. Perspective comes with age, and the trials of growing up.
In this case, perspective came exactly thirty seconds later when the play was passed out.
It had my name. It had my title. But it was not my play.
Bawbawa and Jean had taken a thousand Colonial drawknives and old-fashioned spokeshaves to my masterpiece. Now, they only implied the murder. They threw out the red herring. They dumbed down language. They deleted references. They edited my jokes. They cut out its soul.
Jean and Bawbawa exited.
Without asking my teacher permission, I followed them.
“This isn’t my play!” I shouted.
“Of course it is! We just had to make some edits. It’s for kids, Annamarie.”
“I am a kid. I wrote it. You ruined it.” I sifted through my script. “Only one of The Housewife’s jokes is in tact!”
“Child abuse is not something to joke about, honey.”
I almost retorted about Jean’s creepy birthday spankings, but I decided against it.
Jean let out a dismissive sigh. “The play is great. You did a great job. You just needed a little help. We’re both very proud of you.”
The fire of rebellion burned inside me. The same righteous indignation that I’d been born with was ready to be unleashed upon yet another authority figure.
But I found myself silent. I had no allies in this place. Beth, who was basically a lunchtime babysitter, was my only real friend. The Children of the Corn were in the classroom, scouring over my play, judging every sentence. Bawbawa and Jean had invalidated and censored me.
There was no winning for me here. Defeat created a fire extinguisher that quelled the flames of my rebellion.
“Okay,” I said, surrounded with metaphorical smoke.
I told no one about how I felt. For the next week, I moved around like a zombie, going through the motions and putting the finishing touches on my set.
The day of the play came. As promised, Marina and Naïda came to play my children.
Lights. Camera. Action.
I stood in front of my set, in costume and I repeated Jean and Bawbawa’s lines they’d written for me.
I was surprised when I got laughs when I said the only line of mine that Jean and Bawbawa left in tact.
I watched the parents with camcorders beaming with pride at their children. I watched the other kids in their square buckle boots and felt tricorn hats march around the stage. No one knew this was the source of my deep despair. Everyone was fine. Somehow, we’d fooled them all.
When the last line of the play was said and done, we all took a bow in the middle of the stage—a cement handball court with stairs for seats.
Jean yelled from the sidelines, “And a big hand to the writer of A Williamsburg Mystery: Annamarie Davidson!”
Applause echoed across the pavement from the gleeful crowd of parents and teachers, and I took my second bow.
The worst part was? It felt good. It felt great. But then, I felt awful for allowing myself to savor the praise. Standing there, basking in the approval I so desperately wanted, all I could think was, “I’m such a sellout.”
Afterward, dismantling my set, Marina noticed my mood.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
And there, behind my fake single-pained window, and painted-on drying flowers and roaring fireplace made of orange crepe paper, I cried. I told my friend every horrible detail, every bit of my shame.
She comforted me, in a way only Marina ever could. With a tiny crinkle in the middle of her eyebrows, she said, “So what? You wrote a play. A play, Annamarie. And in ten years, is anyone gonna know it was butchered? No. But in ten years, will you still be able to say you wrote a play? Yes.”
“But I’m a sellout!”
“Okay, maybe you are. But you’re also a playwright!”
The insight revealed itself easily. I connected the dots between my dad, the Stones and Marina. I wanted to write a play. I wanted all the credit. I wanted everything to be exactly how I wanted it. But they were right. I couldn’t always get what I wanted. But I got what I needed: to be a playwright.