I spent a couple of hours yesterday reading through a creative writing fellowship application, and came to the following question:
What was the first piece of creative writing you ever produced?
Since I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, I really had to dig deep for the answer.
And since my response is required as part of the fellowship application (should I decide to even apply), I figured I could practice up with this blog entry. You know, write it down and then see if it has any legs.
It was December, and I was in the third grade at Saint Ambrose Catholic School. I will never forget that it was right before Christmas, because our teacher, Sister Regina Mary, placed a small figurine of the baby Jesus in his manger on a table in our classroom and gave us an assignment.
Each one of us was to bring a gift for the baby Jesus on or prior to the last day before the holiday break. It could be a monetary donation for the St. Ambrose School or church, a wrapped gift that would be passed out at a local orphanage on Christmas day, or some canned or jarred goods that would be donated to a food kitchen.
My classmates were beyond excited. Me? Not so much. What kind of gift could I possibly round-up for the baby Jesus?
Because we wore school uniforms, there was hardly anything to tip off my fellow classmates to the fact that I was dirt poor.
I say hardly because my shoes were always the giveaway.
While others were shopping at the local department stores, I was supplied with clothes from the Salvation Army. And since my feet were huge, the only footwear appropriate for my age and fit me, were boy’s shoes.
The old adage “You can judge a person by their shoes,” didn’t work so well for me back then.
Anyway, after school that day, I walked home defeated and depressed. Heck, we couldn’t even afford shoes so my thoughts came back to the same dilemma.
How was I supposed to muster up an impressive gift for the baby Jesus?
My grandmother, always the optimist, sat me down at the kitchen table to “put our heads together.” But try as we could, the bottom line? I had no gift to give.
And then it hit me. I had no gift to give!
Neither did the little drummer boy, I told my grandmother. And then we went to work.
Days before the holiday break, the kids were bringing in envelopes of all sizes and colors, beautifully wrapped Christmas gifts, canned soups, hams, jars of jellies and jams, other non-perishable goodies, and decorative tins of that God awful fruit cake.
For several nights before the “deadline” I would sit at the kitchen table with my grandmother. While I vigorously wrote away, she created a masterful drum for me. She meticulously adorned a Quaker Oats container in gold foil wrapping paper saved from the year before. Then she rummaged around in her sewing kit and found some red piping to further enhance the look of the drum.
As she glued, I wrote.
On the last day before the holiday break, I was a nervous wreck and started to regret my whole simpleminded drummer girl storyline.
My grandmother lent me two of her wooden crochet hooks for drumsticks, shoved them, the drum, and my hand-written story into a brown paper grocery bag, and sent me on my way.
As I dragged myself to school, I rehearsed aloud and prayed that I wouldn’t let my nerves get the best of me and screw up my baby Jesus gift.
As the school bell rang, I squirmed nervously at my desk, with the paper bag carefully resting on my tapping ugly boy shoes.
When Sister Regina Mary asked if anyone had any last-minute gifts for the baby Jesus, I warily and shyly raised my hand. She looked at me with disdain.
Another back story I should mention.
Because I was raised in a home with all women (my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother) and no father, the nuns didn’t take too kindly to me. I was from a “broken home,” and as such, a second-hand sinner.
The Sister indifferently asked me to come up to the front of the class.
I took a deep breath, grabbed the paper bag, and walked over to the baby Jesus.
I pulled out my story, silently told myself I could do this and recited it to the class.
The story was about a poor girl from Bridgeport Connecticut, who was supposed to give a gift to the baby Jesus. But she had no money, and so she had no gift. And then she came up with an idea with her grandmother. A simple gift that she prayed the baby Jesus would like.
The whole class was whispering and asking each other what this stupid girl wearing boy’s shoes was talking about.
Sister Regina Mary stood by the blackboard with her arms crossed waiting for the baby Jesus gift.
I reached into the paper bag, pulled out the contents, and began to sing — Little Drummer Boy style…
Little baby Pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor girl too Pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring Pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give our King Pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Shall I play for you? Pa rum pum pum pum
On my drum
Mary nodded Pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for Him Pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for Him Pa rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum
Then He smiled at me Pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum
Tears filled Sister Regina Mary’s eyes but to be honest, I could care less. Sister Regina Mary was of no importance to me.
What was of import, was that I was proud of myself and mostly relieved the whole stressful ordeal was over.
The bottom line? I had given my all for the baby Jesus.
But most importantly, and what I will never forget for as long as I live…
As I turned around to go back to my seat, I caught a fleeting glimpse of my grandmother slipping quietly away from the classroom door.