When I was in junior high — Pioneer Junior High, home of the Bears — our school newspaper had a poetry contest. I had moved across town from another junior high, Orchard, home of the Bulldogs, a couple of years before.
It has been a long time, and I believe both junior highs are now middle schools, and neither one has newspapers anymore.
I don’t think the poetry contest was a regular yearly thing. I think it was a “one off” that our school newspaper was trying out in my 9th grade year; it was a glorious “one off” as far as I was concerned.
I remember being really excited at the prospect of a poetry contest. I figured that this was it. This would be the thing that would prove I was a writer. And I think it was also the first time I actually considered sharing my poetry with others. Before this, I don’t think I ever really thought about other people reading what I wrote — I mean, not really (other than silly day dreams, and Paul McCartney songs on the radio in the early morning helped with that). The whole concept that someone other than my teachers or my mom might read what I wrote was foreign. On the other hand, I knew I needed to enter this contest. And I think my mind filed the poetry I’d be submitting in the “homework” portion of my brain to keep me from freaking out about it.
So, I approached it as I would any homework, like I was working on an essay for class, and assumed that only the teacher advisor, and maybe the newspaper students, would ever see the poems I submitted.
But maybe I should back up a little — give you a little history.
When Gramma and Grampa decided to leave Wenatchee, my mom and my sister and I moved from the little house on Pear Lane with a double corner lot, a huge back garden, a little play house and a cool basement, to the tiny two-bedroom duplex on Dakota on the other side of town with a dime-sized yard. Not very far as things went, but far enough to put me in a different school district. Far enough to leave behind friends I’d made my first year of junior high, leave behind track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers and cute boys I had crushes on, and then have to get to know new friends or old friends from grade school again, whilst wondering if I would be able to please my new track and volleyball coaches and orchestra teachers. Would I find new boys to have crushes on?
So, what I’m trying to say is that even after being at PJH for a year, I felt the need to prove myself. I really was holding onto this poetry thing like a lifeline to do that.
When we’d lived on Pear Lane, my sister and I had shared a room in the basement. We’d built forts out of our closets and beds. We’d played “avoid the monsters on the floor” (the creamy linoleum floor had those pink, gold, and black star things on it) and other games. When I wrote it was with visions of becoming another Laura Ingalls Wilder, Louisa May Alcott, or L.M. Montgomery. In my world, I was Jo March.
My sister’s bed had been by the door at the bottom of the stairs and mine had been by the small window that was high up in the wall. I’d left that window open every night when I was really young in hopes that Peter Pan would come to visit. Later I kept it open just to annoy my sister. (It was a basement window with a screen, hidden at the side of the house, in a small town, so no one cared I left it open.)
When we lived on Dakota, once again my sister got the bed by the door, and I got the bed by the window. But this time we were on the ground the floor and the windows looked over the little hedge and the yard onto the small street. We had carpet on the floors and shared a closet with a sliding door and were older, so no more did we build forts or play “keep away from the monsters on the floor.” Instead, we — what would they call it these days? We were “establishing our territories.” We put duct tape down the center of the room. We charged each other 1/4 of a penny every time we touched the other person’s side of the room. Trouble was, my sister’s side was by the door. I had to run down the short hall and do the long jump to get to my side of the room without touching hers, which was only successful about half the time since that was not one of the things I was good at in track.
I probably still owe her money from then.
I still loved being next to the window, though. It was my own little corner of the world. The windows were larger and let in more light. They only opened out a little ways, though, and I didn’t leave them open at night as much anymore. I was old enough now to have seen scary movies and know about the monsters who broke into houses. I wrote messages to my friends in runes or codes, coloring the paper with mom’s leftover coffee so it would look like parchment (she was so annoyed when she found out). And my bed by the window is where I sat to work on my poems for the contest that year. I remember sitting there in the early morning, and sometimes in the evening, looking out the window while I wrote and rewrote lines, crossed it all out and started over again.
I remember working on two poems that year. One I had written mostly while we lived in the little house on Pear Lane. It was simple, following the seasons of the year, and about being a kid in a small town: riding bikes, running along canal roads, running through the sprinkler in the summer, playing in the snow in the winter. I began it on Pear Lane, but I finished it on Dakota. I remember calling it “Childhood.”
Then there was the other poem I worked on, but only on Dakota. It was specific to my immediate condition and was full of young teenage angst and yearning. It hurt so much to express all that that it felt good. I called it “Alone.”
I had put my entire young self into those poems. And then, somehow, I had the confidence and bravery to actually enter them into the contest. A contest where people might read them who hated them, who might point at me and laugh at my ridiculousness. But at least one of them, “Alone,” made it. I think I remember getting third place, but that didn’t matter. It placed, and because of that was published in the school newspaper.
I was so proud! So happy. I don’t even remember the other poems that made it in. I think I remember some semi-cute guy offhandedly saying to me, “cool poem” in one of my classes. It put me over the moon.
I brought home my copy of the school newspaper and swore I’d always keep it. This would always be mine. No one would take it away from me. I’d always have this newspaper as proof I’d been published somewhere.
But, well, things don’t always turn out the way you think. I learned a valuable lesson — to always keep extra copies of what you’ve had published, to keep tearsheets, to keep the original poem or story somewhere safe. Because I lost the copy of that school newspaper with my poem in it, and the copy of the poem as well. I’ve moved several times in my life since then. Every time I have to go through old boxes I think, “I wonder where those poems went.” I look again, just in case. Still not there. They’re long gone in some landfill, probably decomposed by now.
I used to go online every so often and see if anyone had scanned in old copies of the annuals and newspaper from back then. Maybe I’d run into my poem. I even wrote Pioneer Middle School to see if they kept copies of their old newspapers (they don’t). The real world is not Sunnydale and I don’t have a Willow to hack in online and find things that aren’t there.
While I know from the perspective I have as a middle-aged adult that these poems were probably childish first attempts at poetry, “juvenalia” as a friend calls such things, they were my first attempts at poetry. My first attempts at poetry where I actually won something. My first attempts that got published. I will always honor them. I will always miss them.