A 7th Grade English Assignment   Leave a comment

I wrote this piece on Memorial Day, 2005.  It didn’t start out to be a piece on the grief of losing a brother or a statement about the Vietnam War.  It didn’t start out to be a tribute to my brother, Lester.  It was meant to be an adolescent’s discomfort with seeing things from a different perspective, of writing about the obscure angles of things and not the obvious.  This piece ended up being all of those things, however, and I’m reposting it here:

It was at the end of seventh grade that the full weight of my difference from my peers hit me like a sucker punch to the belly. Mr. Becker’s English class. The homework assignment had been to write six sentences and six sentences only describing the worst meal we’d ever had. It was an assignment designed to hone our succinct descriptive abilities. I completed the assignment, as did all the other students in my class, and the next day we had to read our creations out loud. I don’t think I or any of us knew that that was going to be required of us the next day. However, one by one, we volunteered for a turn to read what we had written to the class.

Each essay was remarkably the same. All the students wrote about some yucky, horrible, oogy-boogie meal that they had had to eat as a kid. Some were holiday meals, some were meals made by a sibling or babysitter. Some were embarrassing cooking attempts by the writer. Some were written with a slant towards the humorous. Others strove for the “shock and awe” value. All contained a host of adjectives describing the unappetizing concoction.

I hung back and did not want to read my little essay to the class. All the while each of my classmates was reading, I mentally cursed myself for the stupid, embarrassing thing I had written. I was panic-stricken inside, knowing that I had really botched that silly assignment. What I had come up with was so totally weird.

But finally it was my turn. I was the only one left who hadn’t read their bit of fluff to the class. In a strained voice, I read my six sentences. It described the most horrible meal of my life: the leftover roast beef and mashed potatoes that my mother and I tried to choke down at our kitchen table after getting the news that her stepson and my half-brother, Lester, then just six weeks past his nineteenth birthday and a corporal in the Marines, had been killed in Quang Tri province in South Vietnam. This horrible meal had occurred about nine months earlier during the infamous Tet Offensive in January 1968, and would never be forgotten, in spite of its relative palatability.

My classmates stared at me with furtive, embarrassed eyes. After the other essays, there had been comments, feedback and jokes. There was none for mine. The class was dead silent. I sat down, my cheeks flaming. Mr. Becker was subdued as well. “Nice job,” he murmured. That was all he could say.

I was different. There was no one else in my entire grammar school who had experienced what I had, no one else who had thought to describe a meal — any meal — from an emotional perspective. Only me. Leave it to me to be out-of-step with everyone else!

So, you might run across things here from time to time that are a little different, a little out of the mainstream. I’ve come to expect it of myself. You should, too.

A small tribute to you, Lester, on this Memorial Day. You’ll never be forgotten for your willingness to serve your country in one of the United States’ ugliest military actions. Bless you, brother.

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