Fire, Emotion, and Writing

By Sandy Ward
June 12, 2006

“Your character must flee from his burning home. What does he take with him?” This scenario was posed by our writing teacher at the Holyoke Senior Center on Monday June 5, 2006, as our writing topic for the next week. I knew instantly that I'd tell the tale of my own personal choice years ago.

The tale begins in 11th grade English class at a small progressive school in Vermont. I hated to write. Every writing assignment was a chore. I started at blank pages and froze. I was good at math and science, but not at writing. In public school I had also had difficulty writing; switching to this private school for 11th grade increased the problem because teacher expectations were higher, writing assignments more frequent, and I felt insecure among such talented students. One day that fall I was stunned when our English teacher, Jeff Campbell, told us to write whatever we wanted. Want? Write? Want to write? Never had such an idea crossed my mind. I only wrote when I had to, for an assignment, or to answer my mother's letters pleading for news of my life at my new school. The worst assignment of all was Jeff Campbell's spring term assignment: keep a journal and write in it EVERY day. He allowed us to turn down a corner of any page to signal that the writing there was private, and he promised not to read those pages. But he wanted to see pages filled with writing. Thus, "Jeff's journal" was my companion and daily burden in the spring of 1960.

I can still picture that bound notebook, a blue compostion book. It became worn at the corners and somewhat puffy in the center from all the writings on the pages and the additional items I inserted (and wrote about), e.g., a four-leafed clover I'd found on the soccer field. And I remember the night that I learned to write. In a burst of anger and frustration about a bad experience at Friday Night Singing, I grabbed that journal and wrote furiously. I had run to the library building and found a small closet in which to hide. There I wrote and cried, cried and wrote. My pencil point wore down, and the marks on the pages became wider and blacker. I scribbled in the margins to release my rage, and at the bottom of the scribble I wrote, "Thanks, Jeff." The next day, I wrote a very calm, quiet entry. The storm had passed, and I had learned to express my emotions in writing.

For years after high school, that journal was THE MOST prized possession I owned. I always knew exactly where it was. I always thought that if I had to flee from a fire, I'd grab that journal first. Somehow that journal, that burdensome writing assignment, had become an important treasure. No, I never faced a fire. But I did learn to express myself in writing.

This past weekend, coincidently, was my 45th Reunion at that school in VT. I ran to the library building to find that closet. Long gone -- remodeled into an office. But the English classroom is still there, and I enjoyed telling people about my re-discovery of Jeff's journal, thanks to a writing class at my Senior Center. And I enjoyed singing at Friday Night Sing!

Photo of the composition book I used for my Putney journal, Spring 1060
Photo of angry scribbles in my journal