When I was fifteen, an English teacher assigned me a persuasive essay for our class newspaper The Goldbug. Identify a problem and suggest a solution, he said. We were both new, me and that young teacher, he a recent graduate, me sent to live with relatives by a dysfunctional mother. I’m sure that my second cousin never imagined, when she came home for Christmas that year, that her domestic life was about to be upended. My stay would last for only a semester; Mr. Kinion may have spent his career there. Neither of us anticipated the amplified effect of controversy in a small insular society.
But to understand this story, you must picture the setting. Writers with a deeper connection and greater affinity for the American heartland, breadbasket to the world, have set the scene. The small agricultural community of Fowler, Kansas is thirty-five miles from Dodge City, set among rolling fields in various stages of wheat production. The winter I was there, the arrow-straight highway ran through miles of stubble. The only thing that slowed a brisk Canadian wind was long rows of Osage orange whose compound trunks obligingly tangled with their neighbors to form a windbreak.
Because of their isolation, the community made its own fun. One morning a carload of kids showed up and kidnaped me for a come-as-you-are pancake breakfast. On Saturday nights there was dancing at Teen Town. There were sock hops, basketball games, speech tournaments, a Sadie Hawkins dance, and since I was the new girl, apparently the only one they had ever had, I was wildly popular with the boys. At least until we got out the next issue of The Goldbug.
And so I looked around for a problem in need of a solution. The previous term my mother had sent me to Lubbock to live with Daddy and I attended a large urban school that dealt with juvenile turf wars by imposing something called The Demerit System. For every variety of infraction there was a predetermined penalty. Chewing gum in class might get you a single demerit. Skipping class would get you five. Ten demerits got you expelled.
In my Kansas classroom, I noticed a culture that placed student and teacher on a more equal footing than I was used to, maybe because boys went off to wheat harvest every summer and made more money than their teachers. One day the algebra teacher got so exasperated with a kid on the back row that she flung her textbook at him. He ducked, laughed, and class went on. Well, at Tom S. Lubbock, he would’ve gotten ten demerits then and there!
So I decided to propose The Demerit System for Fowler High School. Had Peter Kinion not been so green, he might have counseled me to take a softer tone, or to prescribe the Dewey Decimal System instead. But he didn’t, and my persuasive essay was duly published. That’s when I learned the power of the pen.
In biology class, a live frog replaced my pickled one on the dissecting tray. My scream was counted as disruption and the principal, a mean-spirited little man named Mr. Sapp, wondered how many demerits I deserved. I sat there in tears, dethroned from my new girl status. The tough girl in school offered to beat my brains out. That Saturday night not a single boy asked me to Teen Town. But worst of all was the silence. Maybe they had held a secret meeting in the gym and voted to never speak to me again. For days I walked the hallways invisible to my classmates. Even my best friend Janie wouldn’t meet my eye. The family who didn’t want me living with them in the first place turned noticeably colder. I had bitten the hand that fed me.
The semester wound down. I was almost glad to go back to my own horrible family. After my second cousin packed me up and moved me out of her house, I never heard from her again. I found her on Facebook recently but she didn’t accept my friend request. I feel certain that if I were to return to the scene of my crime, word would get out via their mysterious and secret small-town network and I would find out they’re still mad at me. I’m sorry, Fowler, Kansas. Didn’t you realize that I loved you?
The author, sophomore year, wielding the power of the pen.