Unknowing Agents of Inspiration

Susan Cushman’s post,  Getting Saved, Sex and Writing over at A Good Blog is Hard to Find, inspired me this morning. Susan writes of a teacher who put masking tape over her mouth to stop her from talking. Her words sparked memories of my own childhood. I am an extreme introvert, although not shy. My elementary school was Walthall School in Hattiesburg, MS. When I asked a question or made a statement as a child it was usually a well-thought out sentence so as not to embarrass myself. In 4th grade I have this vivid memory of having not heard the page number leaning over to ask a classmate what page we should be reading. When I leaned back into my own desk, here comes the teacher stomping towards me, yelling at me. I am terrified. She grabs my little desk with her big hands and shoves it back against the wall.  The impact jolts my tiny 9-year old body so much I can still feel my skin shudder.

I don’t think I uttered another word until I graduated. There have been other agents of energy (this is being kind) who tried to stop me from writing and talking in addition to that fourth grade teacher. In ninth grade, we had an assignment in English Class to write a persuasive letter to someone. I have no memory of whom I wrote my letter to or what I was trying to persuade them to do, but I have a strong memory of what my teacher said about my letter as she read it to the entire class. Shame invaded my life and still lives rent-free in my brain.

Growing up in the south, we have certain words that are part of our language, our vernacular. We use these words in our homes, in our businesses and in personal conversations.  I won’t bore you with the specifics, but I had used several of these words in my assigned letter. The teacher read my letter and snickers echoed off the walls as my classmates listened. She waved the letter in the air and shouted that one does not use such language. I was humiliated. I did not write another thing until I graduated. Except in my personal journals that I kept since elementary school.

As a young bride living in New Jersey in the early 70s I got a part-time job as a typist at a company called Myron Sugarman International.  They manufactured gaming machines for casinos.  I typed letters from the Dictaphone. The men who dictated those letters were all fast talkers. Too fast for me. Well, that was New Jersey, and those accents, you can imagine, were strange for a young girl from Mississippi. I tried to slow down the machine so I could understand what the men said, and I strained to listen. I did my best. The words I couldn’t understand I just made something up that fit what I discerned the letter was about.  Every letter came back with red marks. I tried to explain that I could not understand their accents. They laughed. They did not have an accent – it was me! People in the office asked me questions just to hear me talk.  I was so embarrassed I shut up and quit the job.

But I continued writing in my journals. I made up characters, settings, descriptions. Years later, in a fit of anger, my now ex-husband threw all my journals, around 30 or them, in the Ross Barnett Reservoir. I guess he thought I was writing about him. All those stories now sleep with the fishes.

Writing was mandatory in college classes of course, so I tip-toed around those words that one does not use and was awarded some scholarship dollars to Millsaps College in Jackson, MS based on my writing. I was finally set free.

Now I come to today, and I am like an addict who goes on a binge, wakes up 5 hours later and wonders where the time went. The newspaper is still in the yard, the dust has gathered on the coffee table, phone calls go unanswered, and my FaceBook status is non-existent.  That is how it is when I am writing. Time stands still.

My husband Robert comes home and knows I am writing and leaves me alone. He encourages me. He understands.

Who were/are, in spite of themselves, your unknowing agents of energy and inspiration to keep writing


2 responses to “Unknowing Agents of Inspiration

  1. Thanks so much for the mention, Emma. And now for “the rest of the story”: The teacher who put masking tape on my mouth made me stand in the hall. She called my parents. My dad showed up to take me home. Walking to the car, he smiled and gently put his arm around me and asked, “You okay, Motor-Mouth?”


  2. Hi Emma, Your story touched me deeply,for I only have to substitute singing for writing and your story could be mine as well with only a few deviations. Being unbearably shy as a child myself, and even after I married, I too worked for perfection. It was terribly important that my voice, so personal a part of me, be accepted. Yet, like you, I could practice for hours, alone, absorbed in my music, still in my bed clothes, dishes unwashed and the house in chaos until suddenly it was time for Jim to come home. Frantically I scurried to bring some sort of order before the door opened, berating myself for being so self absorbed. When my husband to be asked me to marry him, I told him he could have all of me but my music. I had to sing. He has supported me all these years, applauded me in the operas, recitals,concerts, encouraged me always and gave me my space. My musical confidence began to grow when a dear friend taught me in a strange way that not everyone would love my voice. This revelation was the beginning of personal and musical growth.
    However, the night I was singled out of the choir, taken down the hall behind the closed doors to the copy room and told in such anger to never come back, that night has changed my life. It was a spiritual rape that was publicly humiliating. The talent God gave me was ironically denied by the church – a most personal and devastating excommunication from the act of worship. The events that followed stole the “holy” from me, changed me, redefined who the church really is. Yes, I continue to sing in another choir at another church. They have warmly welcomed me, been very kind to me, comforted me. But the pain does not go away for the loss is of far greater magnitude than singing in the choir. There are no final rites for this kind death.
    Thank you for sharing your story.


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