Friends! It finally happened! My work was published in the South Dakota State University literary magazine, Oakwood. My essay was the final piece in the magazine, which, according to my creative writing professor, is a good thing. Something about the editors wanting it to be the last thing the people read, the last word of the magazine, what people remembered. That’s kinda cool.
So, I thought I’d share it with you all.
The Top Shelf
Sixth grade seems so long ago now when I look back from the wise old age of twenty (only a month away from that ever elusive twenty-first birthday). Things have changed so much these past ten years but there’s a part of me that has always been there and always will be: my competitive nature.
In Middle-of-Nowhere, South Dakota, my elementary school participated in the AR reading program, a curriculum that awarded points to students when they read a book and took a computer test to prove it. A score of seven out of ten was enough to earn points toward prizes that waited on glass shelves in a locked cabinet just outside the principle’s office. Every day I arrived by school bus number seven and walked into the lobby. There, on my left, were those beautiful shelves, of which I could only physically reach level two at my height. Even at age eleven I knew that the mind was capable of reaching much more than an outstretched arm ever could and so I picked up Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. It was worth a whopping ninety points, the most of all the books in Mrs. Tornow’s library.
I had overheard one of the boys in my class talking about the legendary Gone With the Wind one day in class. He knew it was worth ninety points while the other books were worth twenty-five at the most. He also knew it was composed of over 1000 pages of small font written many years ago. His solution was to take the quiz over and over again, without reading the book, determined he would somehow get lucky and guess all ten questions correctly. He never did.
Motivated by his failure and my desire to reach the top level of those glass shelves before anyone else in my class, I checked out Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind and set to work. One day the massive book was sitting out on top of my desk and Dylan, the boy I’d heard talking about the book earlier, looked at me with wide eyes and asked, “You’re actually gonna read that?”
My goodness was I shy and socially awkward around boys back then. I would be the only girl to play two-hand-touch football with them every day at recess and yet I couldn’t say a word to them. One day, I had even caught the football and did a reverse spin move around a boy a grade above me into the sandpit that marked our endzone. All the boys oohed, partially to praise me and partially to make fun of the older boy. I could play sports with them and not be the least bit intimidated but when they spoke to me, all I could manage was a blush before I had to look away.
My response to Dylan that day was nothing more than a blush and when I picked up my book and turned to walk away I probably tripped over the desk behind me. I don’t remember but that seems typical of 11-year-old me.
Scarlett O’Hara was not beautiful, but men seldom realized it when caught by her charm as the Tarleton twins were.
Since I first read that line I have worked so hard to come up with a character like Scarlett O’Hara. I fell in love with her in sixth grade with that one simple sentence. It was honest and pure. In one line I understood how flawed a person can be and still be adored for all that he or she was. It was so painstakingly obvious how much Margaret Mitchell loved Scarlett as well. No wonder she couldn’t put her away until 1021 pages had passed.
It’s terribly cliché for me to say that I desperately longed to be Scarlett O’Hara of Tara but it’s true and I’m sure you guessed that as soon as I told you how awkward I felt, and was, in sixth grade. Yet I had no desire to be a “lady.” Sure, I wanted to be considered beautiful but with each pimple that blossomed on my face I felt it couldn’t be. But maybe, like Scarlett, I could trick people into thinking I was beautiful. I wanted to walk into a room and have all eyes drawn to me. I wanted my antics to be loveable and my laugh to heal a broken heart.
Was I so explicitly aware of this at eleven years old? I don’t know. But I can’t imagine a time when I didn’t FEEL this, even though I may not have been able to express my desire to be charming. Margaret Mitchell expressed it for me the very first sentence of Gone With the Wind.
To this day, Gone With the Wind is the only book I have ever read twice. It isn’t that other books aren’t worthy of a re-reading, I have a number of books on my shelves that I look forward to reading again some day. What keeps me from them is my list of books that I want to read for the first time. Of course, my “to-read” list grows longer and longer with each passing day, making those “re-reads” less and less likely to take place. Somehow, Gone With the Wind beat the odds and made it to the top of the “to-read” list. And I loved it. Again.
As I read about Scarlett’s journey through the confederacy in the midst of the American Civil War, I saw myself in the corner of Mr. O’Connell’s sixth grade classroom beside the bookshelves full of stories for the sixth grade reader. Certainly, Gone With the Wind would not have been found there, but I’ve always been able to read and comprehend well above my grade level, perhaps another result of my competitive nature.
When I sat down at the computer in the elementary library after finishing page 1021, I was terribly nervous. How could I possibly answer ten questions about such a gargantuan book? How could the beauty and power of Gone With the Wind be summed up in ten simple questions? As I took the test, a few of my classmates gathered around, trying to see if I would earn the coveted ninety AR points.
After I clicked on the “Submit Answer” button for the final question and was waiting for the verdict, Dylan sauntered up behind me, making me even more nervous than I already was. Finally, a new screen appeared on the computer: “You answered 10 out of 10 questions correctly and earned 90 points.”
No way,” Dylan said. “Wanna take that test for me, Kelsey?”
I entered a state of complete inner turmoil. I desperately wanted Dylan to like me, to think I was cool, but knew that taking the test for him would be cheating, something that was inconceivable to me at eleven years old.
“No,” I told him, and for the first time I was able to manage a smile when I was face to face with a boy. To my surprise, he smiled back at me, and I was Scarlett O’Hara and Dylan was Rhett Butler and he was falling for me while I played hard to get and at the middle school dance he would ask me to dance with him while the other boys, like the Tarleton twins, would look on and wish it was they and not the detestable Rhett who had secured a dance with me.
That didn’t happen.
But I WAS the first of my class to claim a prize from the top glass shelf, a green candleholder in the shape of a flower that the principle herself handed to me.
I had forgotten about that candleholder until now. I assume it was replaced on my dresser by a trophy won at one basketball competition or another. Maybe I threw it away or maybe it’s in storage in my closet somewhere. At one point I must have looked at the candle acquiring dust on my clothes dresser and said to myself, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”