6 sentences

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.

“Grandpa’s hard.”

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.”

Oh.

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.

Your turn:

I’d love to hear six of your sentences. Like Brammer, I’m now curious about everyone’s sentences.

16 thoughts on “6 sentences

  1. TD says:

    I love this, Rita!

    I don’t know my six sentences yet. I will ponder 🤔.

    “I forgot to remember.” I may have to use that one for myself!! Made me laugh at its truth of matters.

    Great post!

    • Rita says:

      I had to ponder, too. 🙂 I remember being quite put out that my dad took exception to my words. I did forget to remember!

  2. Diane says:

    Love this idea. You got me thinking right away…

    1. I don’t care that it was your report card – you don’t ever open mail that’s addressed to me.
    2. Oh, what happened the big career woman?
    3. That’s your perception, and your perception is wrong.
    4. If that’s your dream house, you need to do whatever you need to get it.
    5. This is a loose end you can consider tied up.
    6. Cooperate is not a good option.

    • Rita says:

      Oh, I want to know the story behind each of those! Isn’t it amazing how one simple line can indicate so much?

    • Rita says:

      It makes total sense. We are all works in progress, and I think we see/write things when we are ready/able to. I hope I get to see your sentences someday. Or maybe try a set of less-charged sentences? My third sentence isn’t a heavy one–it’s a funny one.

  3. Marian says:

    I am loving these Sunday posts of yours, Rita! I have to tell you that I, too, was hauled into the principal’s office (somewhere between 7th and 9th grade) and accused of something I didn’t do. (Passing a bus pass out the bus window, so someone without a pass could get on for free.) My principal didn’t believe me either, but because I HAD to tell my mother (my bus pass was wrongly confiscated by the bus driver, so I had to explain to my mother why I no longer had a bus pass), she did end up calling the principal to tell him he had the wrong girl. (This was hugely upsetting; I, too, hated the thought of being in trouble.)

    Some sentences:
    1. You can’t give your mother what she really wants.
    2. Tell her she needs to wash her face.
    3. If anyone shouldn’t be a — it’s Marian.
    4. Your parents must be so disappointed.
    5. It’s not all about you.
    6. Stick her in another room and close the door.
    7. I would hope we wouldn’t conflate it with a favour.

    • Rita says:

      Ah, school trauma. I suppose I’m lucky that I didn’t have more of it. I hope I didn’t inflict any on any of my students, but I’m guessing I probably did.

      As with everyone who has shared sentences, I would love to hear the stories behind yours. I’m particularly intrigued by 2, 3, and 6. I’m curious about 7, too, but not as much as the other 3.

  4. Kate says:

    Oh, Rita!! I love this exercise. (And the “I forgot to remember.” My sentences would be:

    1. What exactly is real garland?
    2. You left bubbles in the sink.
    3. Think of it as an adventure.
    4. You better marry yourself a rich man.
    5. If we didn’t have her, you’d have to do it and no one would be happy.
    6. I need consistency over time.

    I too had a run in with my high school principal that left me spitting mad for YEARS. I’ve come to the conclusion that all girls with a certain level of self-possession and intelligence probably have had that run in at least once.

    • Rita says:

      I like your conclusion–and your sentences. I want to know the story of every one of them. I’m especially intrigued by #5, as I can’t really imagine what the circumstance might be.

      • Kate says:

        While on this long car ride, I was (half-jokingly) telling Jesse that he should be so grateful for me and all I do and he (half-jokingly) said “I KNOW. What would we do without you?” And from the back of the car in this tiny little girl voice Violet (who was maybe 4?) said it, “if we didn’t have her, you’d have to do it, and no one would be happy.” I laughed and laughed and laughed.

  5. Late says:

    Oh and I almost forgot: I *just* told Violet two weeks ago that she was the dumbest smart person I’ve ever met. It wasn’t until reading your post that I considered that it might not have come across the way I intended. (As in: why in the world would you leave two weeks of COMPLETED homework in your binder instead of turning it in?!?)

    Also: I think the smartest dumb person is kind of like…Trump.

    • Rita says:

      Ha! Well, then, I definitely would prefer to be a dumb smart person! (I tend to think he’s an amoral sociopath, more than dumb.) I feel Violet’s pain. Been feeling it all my life. 🙂

  6. Omeica says:

    I absolutely loved reading this! I want to do this for myself and I could see this being an amazing writing project for students. Just the idea of how powerful a sentence or word can be in developing who we are and how we view ourselves and the world. As I started to think I realized many of the sentences I would chose led to trauma over not feeling loved or good enough. Then it made me not want to do the project because I didn’t want people reading it and thinking I just wanted them to feel sorry for me. Thank you for being vulnerable to share yours. AND, I’m SURE you have posed the last one as a question to me before, “What kind of hard do you want?” Thank you for asking me that!

    • Rita says:

      Oh, if someone were to read your stories and think that, it says far more about them than you. I love reading other peoples’ stories because it helps me better understand the world and my own. But, what I love about this idea as an exercise (especially if I think about students) is that it could be tailored to different purposes–5 sentences that made you laugh, maybe. As for that last sentence: My mother asked it of me at a crucial time, and I’ve been using it ever since. I think it’s the most valuable question anyone ever asked me!

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