To say I valued those who valued books would be something of an understatement. I followed my bookish sister and slightly less bookish brother blindly to many unfortunate literary decisions. In third grade, I decided it would be a good time to read “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and in fifth grade, while the other kids scrambled diligently to “The Lightning Thief” and “Ramona and Her Mother,” I maintained an air of superiority as I whipped “The Da Vinci Code” out of my pink paisley backpack.
I enjoyed those novels about as much as I would enjoy reading hieroglyphics, which is to say I didn’t understand them, totally missed their significance and stopped reading halfway through. My largest conquest in the literary field was “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” I mostly question the librarian who checked this arcane 35-pound book out to the same family that could not return a book to the library before spilling a smoothie on the front cover, ripping out the first page, smashing blueberries between chapters one and two, and then dropping the damn thing in the bathtub.
But I was confident Shakespeare would be a different story. One does not read Shakespeare while eating a burrito or taking a bath. Shakespeare was to be read while sitting quietly on the couch, perhaps wearing reading glasses, while the adults around you discussed the war in Iraq or taxes.
The actual content of the plays took second fiddle to the fact that all the adults saw me reading them. No matter how few lines of the book I actually read or understood, the idea of scripted conversations was appealing. Carefully considered dialogue was a revelation to the chubby middle schooler who knew that she was funny, although nobody else did.
In elementary school, I always wanted to be a great actress. So, when I went into sixth grade, I joined Drama Club. Although I had no acting experience, years of delusion, brought on by the “youngest child” variety of praise, had created an overwhelming sense of superiority over my fellow club members.
Our adviser, Mrs. James, would bring out huge volumes of plays for us to paw through before voting on which to perform as the spring play. My excitement at seeing all of the plays to read, and star in, was short-lived. There was no Shakespeare, no Tennessee Williams, no Oscar Wilde, just pages after pages of mixed-up fairy tales and general hilarity. I auditioned regardless — for the lead, naturally, as I would accept nothing else.
I was not chosen to be the lead. Bethany Castillo was chosen as the lead — an eighth-grader. The overt corruption in middle school theater can be devastating to young girl’s self-confidence. While still steaming about the injustice of it all, an idea sprang into my head. Sure, I could do makeup or hair for a paltry school play, or I could write my own paltry school play.
Now, one may think that an 11-year-old does not have the mental capacity or follow-through to create a well-thought-out play with intriguing characters and superb dialogue, and one would be absolutely correct in both of these assumptions.
I can remember the weeks leading up to the play as a sort of hazy stress dream. I can picture myself pacing back and forth in front of my cast. “It’s not that hard, guys!” I would yell as I tightened the drawstring on my red sweatpants, days before the premiere. I seemed to take on the persona of an aged playwright who just didn’t understand kids these days. I would mutter, “Actors,” under my breath and vent each night to my mother about the incompetence of five people who, weeks ago, I considered my best friends. “Don’t even get me started on Matt! It’s like he isn’t even there at rehearsal,” I would grumble, leaning over our kitchen counter with one hand jutted out, looking for what I can only assume was a bourbon on the rocks, the drink of choice for misunderstood artists.
On the day of the premiere, I maintained the highest of stress levels, in comparison to my decidedly unstressed cast. Although I had very few things to do in the hours before the curtain went up, I still managed to keep busy, zipping from room to room, ranting and leaving a puff of misery everywhere I went. As the curtain went up, I can still remember the horror I felt as I sat in the wings, petrified, watching my dreams being obliterated.
After the curtain closed and my legs began to mobilize, I found my way to my parents, their mouths turned up in tight smiles. “That was so great, sweetheart,” they both echoed. “You worked so hard!” they said, beaming. They pulled me close, rubbed my back and held me for a second too long. It was a condolence hug; a youngest child can just sense it.
“Can we go to Dairy Queen?” I asked, looking up at my father, who smiled warily and nodded.
After that, I stopped telling people that I had written a play.
Kate Tinney writes the arts & entertainment column on shifting artistic contexts and perspectives. Contact her at [email protected].