This week I came across an essay that will stay with me awhile. It’s framed by six sentences that John Paul Brammer can’t forget. Not because they are attached to milestones or life-changing events, but because they
“…accidentally reveal too much—about the person who spoke them, or about the person who heard them, or about the relationship they share. They illustrate private worlds, bring us into exhilarating contact with another person’s depths. Their inexplicable survival is proof of their importance, their holiness.”
Brammer says that these are not sentences we choose, but sentences that choose us, and that he wishes he could know everybody’s.
Naturally, I started thinking about what my sentences might be. I started thinking about how a whole memoir might be written in this way, small vignettes anchored by a line of dialogue that–like a poem–reveals a novel’s worth of words in a few lines.
I hoped to write up all six of mine, but I could only develop two by today, and neither feels as if it is completely done. But here they are:
“Who do you think you are?”
I was in sixth grade, in the principal’s office. Mr. Driver was a beefy, ruddy-faced man. According to those who would know, he was comfortable wielding a paddle. No one liked him. One day he appeared in my classroom door and summoned me. Following him down the breezeway, I tried to predict what our meeting would be about. I was a good student, a good kid. A rule follower, perhaps to a fault. Was I being taken to his office to receive some kind of recognition or other good news? What could it be? Because, surely, I could not be in any kind of trouble.
I’m not sure if our conversation actually opened with “Who do you think you are?” but in my memory it did, and I was as surprised and shocked as I would have been if he’d slapped me.
“Who do you think you are?” is never a question. It is always an accusation, and a weapon.
By the time he was done dressing me down about my arrogance and inflated sense of importance, which, he assured me, were unwarranted, I knew that my teacher and the school librarian had shared grievances of mine with him, among them my outrage when, as a punishment for some students vandalizing bathrooms, all of us were denied access to them other than at recess time. This punishment violated all my ideas about fairness and basic rights.
“I know you’re one of the students throwing those toilet paper wads on the bathroom ceiling,” he said somewhere in the middle of his tirade.
I wasn’t, but I was too flooded with shame to say anything. I had thought my conversations were confidential. I had trusted those other two adults and the relationships I thought I had with them. If they thought there was something so wrong with me that I needed this reprimand, perhaps there was. Or perhaps I had been wrong about who they were to me, which indicated a different kind of failing on my part.
Who did I think I was?
Before I went into his office, I thought I was a girl who understood the world and my place in it. When I left, I knew I wasn’t.
I didn’t tell my dad about Mr. Driver until I was well into high school.
I grew up in a home where getting in trouble at school meant getting in bigger trouble at home, so I didn’t dare. As my daughter said about my dad when she was just a little girl, “Grandpa’s hard.”
“Hard” can mean firm. It can mean rigid. It can mean difficult. It can mean exacting. When I was young, he got angry once when I told him that I “forgot to remember” something I was supposed to do, more angry at my words than at my failure to do whatever it was I’d forgotten.
“Don’t make excuses like that,” he said. “Just say that you didn’t do it.”
Another time, when I was a teen-ager, in response to something I can no longer remember, he said, “You might be the dumbest smart person I know.” That sounds cruel. Certainly not kind, and I suppose that’s partly why the words have stayed with me even though the story attached to them is gone.
It was more than that, though–or maybe, just not as simple as that. I remember pondering the idea that one could be a dumb smart person. What did that mean, really? And how might that be different from being the smartest dumb person? I thought I could feel a compliment inside his hard words, sort of.
I’ve come to realize that, like my own words, my dad’s are not always understood, which means that he is not always understood. For years I nursed resentment over his reaction to my 7th grade report card, in which I had all A’s, except for a B in English. He studied it in his recliner after dinner the day I brought it home, his face serious. Finally, he said:
“Why’d you get a B in English?”
Really? All those A’s, and all he could say something about was the B? Really?
What I heard in his question was disappointment and judgement and a demand for perfection. I shrugged, bitter that he didn’t appreciate a report card other parents would be thrilled with.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I told him how much that moment had bothered me, so much so that I still remembered it. He was dumbfounded to learn that his words had had the impact they did. “I was just surprised,” he said. “English was always your best subject. I didn’t understand why you’d gotten a B in that.”
I could see, then, how I’d been dumb in that moment he questioned me about my report card. I could see, too, the wondering within his proclamation that I was the dumbest smart person he knew. He was genuinely perplexed by some of the things I did and didn’t do, a puzzlement I now understand because I have a child of my own who is wicked smart and whose teen-age years were filled with choices I could not, for the life of me, comprehend.
Maybe it was then that I more deeply understood his reaction when I finally told him about Mr. Driver and the way he’d pulled me into his office to take me down a peg. We were driving to a family holiday gathering, and we were reminiscing about earlier years, and it felt safe to float that story from the back seat, enough in the past that it might now be a funny one.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” he asked. I admitted that I had been afraid to.
“Oh, Rita,” he said. “I wish you’d told me. I would have gone in and talked to him.” He looked straight ahead, at the road. I could see his jaw twitching beneath his cheek. He shook his head. “That was just wrong for him to do that to you.” A pause, and then, again: “I wish you would have told me.”
At the time, I felt vindication for my earlier hurt feelings, and also relief that I wasn’t “in trouble” with my dad. I was long past a grounding or some other kind of punishment, but I still wanted his approval. Now, though, I see a different meaning in his words. I see that he was telling me that it wasn’t a funny story, and that he was sorry not to have been more understood by me, so that he could have done something to make what happened right.
“Hard” can mean firm, and rigid, and difficult, and exacting. It can also mean strong and unyielding. My dad, like his love, is hard.
The rest of my sentences are listed below, and I’ve got seven total, not six. Although I didn’t see a thread or story between them initially, I do now. It wasn’t until digging into the piece just above that I added the seventh sentence to my list. I’ll need it to tell the story completely.
The remaining sentences:
- “My love life is wonderful, and I haven’t been drinking.”
- “It’s important to be a finisher.”
- “I hope you’ll remember that this is mostly your own personal tragedy.”
- “Don’t ever think that anything is wasted on you.”
- “What kind of hard do you want?”
While I was showering (where some of my best writing happens) and trying to figure out which sentence in the story about my dad most revealed the essential truth about him and me, I saw that the vignette contained multiple sentences I can’t forget:
- Why’d you get a B?
- You’re the dumbest smart person I know.
- Grandpa’s hard.
- I forgot to remember.
Now I’m thinking about using this idea of unforgettable sentences as a tool to work the other way round: What if we start with a memory and before we even write a word of it, we just think about the memorable utterances of its characters?
Mostly what I’m thinking about, though, is the value of exercises and models. Any model can generate a prompt or exercise, and prompts are great for taking us into stories we didn’t even know we wanted to tell.
I’d love to hear six of your sentences. Like Brammer, I’m now curious about everyone’s sentences.