When I tell people that I started writing stories in second grade, many find this hard to believe. In truth I may have started earlier, but since the first physical artifact of my early writing still in my possession dates from the second grade, I’ll go with it. The second grade was also when I published my first collection of short stories under the tutelage of Mrs. Olson, my 2nd Grade teacher. Most of my memories of Mrs. Olson revolve around my surprise at how freaking old she was, by far the oldest looking teacher I have ever had. I remember her librarian glasses and how the skin hung off her arms when she was writing on the chalkboard, swinging back and forth like a wrinkled hammock in the breeze. It is quite possible that she wasn’t really that old, but the mere act of teaching snot-nosed little brats everyday had caused her physical body to age at an accelerated pace, something I know about all too well having somehow become a teacher myself. But I digress.
Chapter 1 – Simple Pleasures
I actually found my book of stories while cleaning out a closet at my mom’s house when we were getting ready to sell it. Its somber title was January Stories by Jeff Hager. One thing I had when I was younger was imagination, though not necessarily reflected in this title. I practically lived in an imaginary world, but since I was such a lone wolf I had no imaginary friends in there with me. It was me and my words and my pictures. Here’s a transcript of one story, “Nogmania.”
My nogs live in people’s hair. If you don’t comb it they will eat you up. If you take one out they will give you a disease. They are like little savage monsters. They are smaller than a termite. One day everybody was combing his hair and all the nogs died, except one was lucky and didn’t die. He moved into Bottle City!
Despite the fact that the POV changes and there is a character named everybody, it is better than a lot of my first drafts. As you can see I also illustrated each of the stories, and I was quite the young artist if I do say so myself. I was using similes at age 8, and unlike a lot of the stories I wrote in high school, something actually happens in this one. But I also see why my teachers and mother were so concerned. I rarely ever spoke, in class or at home, but when I sat down to write somehow words and ideas poured onto the page. Soon after the triumph of January Stories, I completed another illustrated book called Lost Land. It involved a young boy going back in time and meeting a bunch of dinosaurs. Some were nice and some tried to eat him. I think it was loosely based on the original Land of the Lost television show, which was a favorite of mine. This book proved very predictable in its storyline, but the illustrations were pretty kick ass, mainly because my father had given me a book on how to draw dinosaurs. I probably drew a dinosaur on at least 75% of my papers in elementary school, usually when I was supposed to be working on math problems or something else that didn’t interest me. Dinosaurs were cool. That was all that mattered. These early writing successes planted the writing seed somewhere deep in my brain, but unfortunately the successes were short lived. My youthful enthusiasm would soon be placed ruthlessly into a chokehold by the iron grip of editing, criticism, and rejection.
Chapter 2 – The Doubt Creeps In
3rd grade was difficult. ADD wasn’t widely understood. I wasn’t hyper, but definitely had difficulty concentrating and staying seated in class. My third grade teacher had called for a conference with my Mom about my distractibility in class, and her suggestion was I might have ringworm that was causing my restlessness. She swore she had seen it before, so my mother took me to the doctor to have me tested for parasites. I wish I was making this up, but unfortunately my imagination is not that macabre. Needless to say there were no parasites. I continued to struggle in school, except when I was writing.
By fourth grade my teacher noticed my writing immediately. She thought it was good, so good that she accused my parents of writing my homework assignments. Of course they didn’t. They proofread maybe, but I was very incensed that someone didn’t believe I had written the words that I wrote. My parents were contacted and of course denied the accusation. Being a teacher, myself, I know that parents always do, whether they wrote it or not.
My fifth grade teacher went even further and accused me of plagiarizing my state report. There were four grades and I got an A+ on three. On the writing grade, I got a D because my teacher assumed I could not have written such descriptive and interesting passages. This was about twenty years BG (before Google) and the Internet was still a glimmer in some nerdy engineer’s glasses. I had written every word myself, and put a lot of work into it. I’m still not sure what is more disheartening for a writer, being told your writing is not good enough, or being told your writing was so good you couldn’t possibly have written it.
Chapter 3 – Accusations and Lies
It wasn’t until middle school that I finally found the recognition I thought I deserved. But it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. It was middle school, after all.
During these middle school years my writing actually started gaining a little momentum, and garnered some praise and recognition from my teachers. In seventh grade I got first place in our school limerick contest, though I have no idea how, as poetry has never been my strong suit. The teacher that judged the contest had a peculiar disdain for me, and assumed I must have plagiarized the content from somewhere. I was called down to the principal’s office to answer to these accusations. She didn’t know where I had plagiarized it from and had absolutely no proof, but was nonetheless positive I could not have written the poem myself. But she lacked any concrete evidence, and I denied the charges and was eventually allowed the first place prize. They awarded me a tacky little certificate most likely run off the school ditto machine. I have no further proof of any of this happening beyond my faulty and questionable memories of these incidents.
It was finally in the eighth grade that a teacher directly praised my writing abilities and presumably my intelligence. In English, we often had to answer in-class essay questions in response to the literature we read, and my English teacher would always start reading my paper the moment I handed it to her. I remember one time that she gasped out loud after I had turned in an essay response, while most of the class was reading silently. “Jeff, your response is perfect,” she said, “just perfect.” I felt suddenly embarrassed by this, and I’m sure that my classmates were looking at me like I was some kind of do-goody brown-noser, though I can’t be certain due to my prominent position in the front row (did I mention my ADD?). This one teacher had praised my writing privately many times, reassuring me that I had a certain lucky proficiency with words that was above the average. Since she actually witnessed me sit down and compose the words in front of her, she must have realized that I had, in fact, written it myself. She was the first person I remember telling me to keep writing, which later became a theme among teachers that recognized some kernel of talent in me, and even as I write this now I try to keep telling myself this. Just keep writing.
J.D. Hager lives in Northern California with his wife, his Labradors, and his 182 children, which are all named “student.” He works undercover teaching middle school science, running a school garden, and poking sticks into the dirt to plant seeds. His code name is Mister Hager. His fiction has appeared in the Porter Gulch Review, Bartleby Snopes, Cease, Cows, East of the Web, and is forthcoming in many other yet to be determined places. He shares leftovers, incompletions, and other sequences of words on his blog The Intrinsickness, at jdhager.wordpress.com. His book of short stories, Mister Mustache and Other Stories, is available at iTunes and Barnes and Noble.