The Importance of the Letter C

by Margaret (Maggy) Mulhern

After a morning filled with learning how to color inside the lines and singing songs about the importance of sharing, Mrs. Passmore’s class moved into the part of the day I didn’t care for: writing time. I was, by most accounts, a bright child; I was certainly bright enough to grasp that the other kids understood something I couldn’t wrap my head around. I knew our assistant teacher hadn’t singled me out because she enjoyed talking to me about my five-year-old views on the meaning of life. No, she was talking to me in her soft, compassionate voice because I clearly did not understand what the teacher was saying about how the alphabet works—and that’s an issue if a kid is ever to learn how to write.

“Look Maggy, this is how you make the letter C,” Mrs. Sweeny said as she drew a C on the paper and then handed me the pencil. “Now you try one; it’s like drawing half a circle.”

I took the pencil and did my best to copy what she had done.

“Good job!” she said. “Now can you tell me what sound C makes?”

I stared at her and shook my head.

“It makes the CUH sound, like in cookie,” Mrs. Sweeny said. “Try saying it with me now.”

I unenthusiastically made the required noises and drew rows of the letter C in my green wide-ruled composition notebook. But I didn’t understand how the little half circle I had drawn on the page could possibly represent a cookie; this stuff just wasn’t making sense to me. Truthfully, Mrs. Sweeney and I both knew my head wasn’t in it. The sun was shining outside and the sky was cloudless, so why in the world were we sitting inside staring at a paper? Did my teachers not realize that there were trees to climb, playgrounds to play on, and games of tag to be played? With my parents and teachers constantly reading me interesting stories, I felt no need to slog through plotless ones about Dick and Jane so that I could actually learn how to read. That’s what they were there for. And anyway, learning how to make the letter C was far too basic to grant me the ability to express my thoughts through writing. Instead, I could just say what I felt and be done with it. No, at five years old I had everything I wanted, and I didn’t need Mrs. Sweeney trying to mess that up with the alphabet.

Eleven years later I was taller and, thankfully, now had a firm grasp on the alphabet. However, much to the annoyance of my high school teachers, I still harbored the same feelings about education as I did when I was five. Now the only difference was that, instead of not caring about learning the alphabet, I didn’t care about learning things like the parts of a cell or the French word for rollerblades. Learning biology is all well and good for future doctors, but my disdain for florescent hospital lighting crossed that off the list. And if I am ever in France and the only thing I have to talk about is rollerblading, we have bigger issues than my lack of vocabulary. I often found myself staring at my teachers with the same blank, uninterested expression that I had perfected as a child.

Then, with the end of my sophomore year of high school rapidly approaching, I was busy packing up my dorm room at boarding school and making plans for the summer. I was fresh out of my second year of English classes with a particularly dull teacher; let’s call him Mr. Smith. Mr. Smith loved books about nature. Don’t get me wrong, I love nature too, but reading two years worth of stories about boys becoming men in the wilderness was enough to make anyone want to move to the woods just to escape this class. I had always loved reading on my own, but English classes like Mr. Smith’s gave me the feeling that, though personal reading can be fun, talking and writing about books had to be soul-suckingly dull. Though I had been told I was a good writer, I never thought the passion I had for reading and telling stories could be extended beyond a form of personal entertainment. I wasn’t sure what most writers were like as kids, but I assumed that they had enjoyed English class, so there was no chance I’d grow up to be like them. Because I hated English so much, I had no intentions of reading books selected by anyone but me over my treasured summer vacation. Until, that is, one perfect book recommendation transformed the way I thought.  

“Mags, I have a book you should read.”

On a sunny spring day like this one, the last thing I wanted to be handed was a book. I broke from the conversation I had been sharing with my friends over another mediocre dining hall lunch. Jake, my freshman year dorm parent and a ski coach at my school, was holding a medium sized book in front of me. The cover simply said, “Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris,” as if written on a chalkboard.

“You will like it, I promise,” Jake said. “I laughed so hard my girlfriend thought I was having a fit. You’ll like the author; he’s a lot like you. I bet you hate all the same things.”

I typically try to be noncommittal when people give me book recommendations. I know they have the best intentions in mind when giving me their list of personal favorites. But if I feel morally obligated to trudge through one more book about the importance of girl power or a cat walking through the woods at sunset, I am likely to punch something.

This time, though, I was confident this would not happen. I had come to know Jake quite well over the last two years. I respected his sometimes offensively blunt, tell-it-like-it-is attitude. More importantly, I knew he wasn’t trying to revolutionize my life with this book. He just recognized that we had similar senses of humor and thought I might have a good laugh. So I took his book and promised to return it in a couple of weeks.

As it turned out, Jake was absolutely right. For the first time in my life I laughed out loud from reading a book. Not only did I laugh; I laughed until my abs ached. Me Talk Pretty One Day is acollection of essays about Sedaris’s life. The essays aren’t deep or profound; they are just a hilarious commentary on the world around Sedaris and his experiences in it. I finished the book within a matter of days, but it didn’t seem to stop there. I continued to hear Sedaris’s voice in my head long after I was done. I heard what he might think about the people and situations I found myself surrounded by; it felt like I was living in one of his books.

I had enjoyed reading some novels before because each had the ability to take me to a different world and let me live out a story through someone else. These essays were different, though, because the author wasn’t telling stories through other people’s lives. This was all his life, and most of the stories started out from pretty typical day-to-day situations. Sedaris’s thoughts and honest voice transformed boring situations into something worth reading about.

While many people try to put on an air of sophisticated intelligence in their writing, Sedaris states what he thinks with a simplicity and a clarity that I had never seen from a published author. While reading his book there were instances when I thought that what was written on the page had come straight from my head. Never before had I seen an author sum up my philosophy towards setbacks as well a Sedaris does when he says: “When shit brings you down, just say ‘fuck it’, and eat yourself some mother fucking candy” (68). While reading sentences like that, I started to realize that writing could truly be an expression of oneself; it doesn’t have to follow the genres that I learned about in school. If you are serious, it can be serious. If you are funny, it can be funny. However you choose to approach it, that piece of writing is yours. As I read Sedaris, trying my best not to wet myself from laughter, I realized that writing for English classes might be monotonous now, but some day, far off into the future, writing could potentially be fun. This was the first time I’d seen the shift from an active reader to a writer as a possibility for myself, and indeed the first time I thought my dry sense of humor was something that could potentially pay my rent one day.

It turned out that the time far in the future when writing might not be so bad wasn’t actually very far away. The chance for me to explore my voice as a writer came six months later when my new English teacher, Reid Jewett, broke down. She simply could not take grading one more uninspiring five-paragraph essay.

“Your papers were terrible, all of them.” Reid said, putting a thick stack of freshly graded, unenthusiastically written, papers down. My junior English class members looked around at each other nervously. True, no one had really been interested enough in this to actually put original thoughts into it, but really how could they have been THAT much worse than usual? “They were fine grammatically and structurally, but they are all just so boring! None of you are boring kids, so you shouldn’t be boring writers. So we are doing something different,” Reid said. “For the next paper you can write about anything you want. You can write about your left shoe, or the weird stains on the ceiling of the dinning hall for all I care. The only criteria are that it has to be well written and it has to be interesting.”

Prior to this assignment I had always struggled to meet the minimum length of papers. Without interest in the assigned topic, I failed to find enough words to fill the page. So, when I found myself writing the tenth page of a paper about my family dinners, I was blown away. I had never written a short narrative before, but because I already knew the characters so well, their voices came to mind easily and I had a clear image in my head of what I wanted to write. I labored over choosing the perfect words to describe my family members, the words that would best convey their voices and show my reader what a family dinner looks like through my eyes. For the first time, I was not just writing to fill the page; I was writing to say something.

Don’t get me wrong, that day in English class my struggles with writing did not end, but they did change. I sweated over how to write my family dinner paper for so long that I turned the final draft in a week late (thankfully Reid didn’t mind because it was so much better than anything I had written before). I had dreaded writing before because it was painful to bullshit my way through another paper I couldn’t care less about. With these new assignments I still dreaded writing, but now it was because I hated the thought that my readers wouldn’t understand what I was really trying to say. For the first time I knew that, although I was a good writer, it would be a long road ahead before I could use words as well as I wanted to. Yet I was eager to get going.

Once given the liberty to write about whatever I wanted, I realized that the benefits of my education were not for anyone but me. All those years ago in kindergarten, when I felt I was learning solely to please my parents and teachers, I was really learning for my own growth as a person, not just as a student. I did well in school for most of my life because I have an innate competitive drive that pushes me to work hard in every activity in which I partake. I wanted to get good grades not because that indicated I had learned a lot, but instead because good grades meant I was succeeding. When given the ability to write about whatever I wished, though, the hours spent being taught how to properly make my letters stopped feeling like something I had been forced to do for other people and started to feel like something that was really my own.

All these years later, I am willing to admit that Mrs. Sweeney was right: learning the alphabet was, in fact, more important than playing tag. I do not admit that because learning the alphabet has allowed me to do well in school and continue my education in college. I say it because writing is the best way I have to express myself, and the fundamentals I had to learn all those years ago really are the basis of writing.