I had just finished my first year of teaching and was seated next to my principal in her office, part of my first-year evaluation.
She leaned over the paper work—so close that I smelled her Chanel perfume, heard the jingle of her large gold earrings, and saw several fine grey hairs that didn’t get bathed in honey-blond dye.
“So, this first year went well?” she asked.
She continued, her frosted pink lips stretched into a smile. “But it must be hard for you.. ..being.. .one of the only. ..you know…”
She continued to smile and without a second of hesitation, she said. “I mean, well, you know you’re the only one—besides Mr. Fineberg—”
I think my eyebrows flew off my head. I got it immediately.
Embarrassment flooded my body as I stammered, “No, no. I have no problems. Really. Everyone is really nice.” Suddenly her office phone buzzed and she told me to come back at the end of the day to finish our “talk.”
At the time, I tucked the incident far into my mind—so much so, that I can’t recall what happened when I went back to finish our little “talk.”
It wasn’t until a few years later—my days at that school long gone—that this moment resurfaced.
I was editing a scene from my book My Sister’s Wedding, where my main character, Maddie, reflects on her relationship with the very loud and pushy Susan. Maddie flashes back to grammar school, when they first became friends. Susan, herself a half-Jew, once defended Maddie to the popular clique who declared Maddie “too Jewish” to hang out with. Susan, full of piss and vinegar, hustles up to them and shames them for their prejudice. For this mitzvah, Susan is thus declared a “Jew lover” and branded with a figurative scarlet I While this scene demonstrates why Maddie feels forever indebted to Susan, as I reread this moment in the novel, I was struck by Susan’s bravery.
I hadn’t read the scene in quite a while and the moment in my boss’ office, years before, came rushing back, loud and fierce like a tidal wave.
And as I relived the moment, the parts my mind chose to remember, I realized that I created this character, cushioned her with Jewish friends, gave her a brave friend to stick up for her because I was missing that in my life—as a teen and as an adult. I used my writing to create people who are better, braver, wiser, gutsier than I, so that I can forgive myself for not being the person I wish I were.
Hannah R. Goodman is the author of the award-winning YA novel, My Sister’s Wedding (Universe, 2004). A former high school English teacher and now at-home-working mommy, she teaches her homegrown writing course Releasing the Writer Within in Rhode Island. www.hannahrgoodman.com