It wasn’t an English teacher who first awakened me to the power of literature. It started in 8th grade social studies; the focus of our midterm project was the Civil War. One of the options for the assignment was to create the diary of a soldier. So I began to write it late one Friday night.
I was already bored with the idea. The cliches of war were the first ideas to surface: tales of bloodshed and gunpowder, the heartbreak and destruction, the blind allegiance of Us vs. Them… I was sick of seeing and reading those same tired themes of war, witnessing these stories melt into a mess of tropes. I rebelled, and so did the protagonist of my diary.
His name was Ethan Wolfe, a Union soldier and avid family man. Pining for his wife and daughter, he decides to go AWOL and witness the carnage of his brothers in arms from an abandoned rail car during Sherman’s raid of Atlanta. He struggles with the ethical ramifications, questions the line between bravery and cowardice and puts a human face back on the men of the opposite side.
“Dave?” Mrs. Duffy, our teacher, pulls me aside two days after submitting the assignment. “I have a question about your Civil War Project.”
Shit, I think. Did I stray too far from the point of the assignment? What’d I do wrong?
“It’s nothing bad,” she reassures me, “in fact… I’d like to read from it before each class next week. Would you be okay with that?”
I was stunned. “Y…yeah, that sounds great. Was it really that good? I didn’t think it was.”
Mrs. Duffy smiles and rolls her eyes at me. “For as long as I’ve been teaching, no student’s writing has ever made me so… choked up.”
No way. Oh, wait. I didn’t just think that. “No way.”
Mrs. Duffy nods. “You really know how to convey emotions using your stories. I like how you took the assignment and really made it your own. Not only did you understand the subject, you put a lot of emotional and ethical elements to it.” She pauses. “You know how to use your vocabulary in the best way possible.” She presents the project to me, along with her scoring sheet, complete with a boastful 105 emblazoned in red. “A score of 100 didn’t do it justice.”
The following week, Mrs. Duffy began each class with a passage from the diary of Ethan Wolfe. Hearing my words in her voice, the way her emotions mirrored that of the writing, seeing the amazement of my classmates… I’d finally found my talent. I wasn’t an athlete, I couldn’t sing or dance, and I was barely sociable in any way. But through this simple social studies assignment, I discovered a way for my personality and voice to show. Thus, I started writing.
Our family moved to South Philly that April, barely a month and a half before graduating from middle school. Days later, my yearbook from that school arrived in the mail. I learned from some friends at my former school that Mrs. Duffy shared my project with other teachers and students, and intended to use it as an example of how to do the project when she assigns it to her class next year.
Thank you, Mrs. Duffy. I plan to finish my first novel sometime within a year, maybe sooner. Once I find out how to get in touch with you, I’m sending you the first copy. Much love.