Stories, verses and prose decorate all rooms inside the House of Words. Today, we abandon the library for a tale forged over the workshop’s tepid fires. A fable inspired by true events and forever laser-etched behind my blue eyes…
A hot November morning after a humid evening of passing hurricane rain, we gather for English Lit. in one of the academy’s open-air classrooms.
“Come in. Good morning,” Mr. Torres says behind dark-rimmed glasses. “I have a surprise test for you today.”
Forty grumpy teenagers groan. Spanish, both proper and the street’s, travels the green concrete and blasts the aluminum windows.
The girls wear thick, burgundy, two-fingers-below-the-knee-long skirts and matching vests. The boys dress in brown, baggy jeans and white, emblazoned polo shirts. ‘Academia Santa María,’ the embroidery reads.
“Sit down, sit down.” Mr. Torres hurries us along as we drag our feet and exchange concerned glances. “I told you Friday there’d be a test this week.” He taps the forsaken paper stack and gestures to the first chair of each of five rows of creaky, metal desks. “Take one and pass the rest.”
I receive the document and a lone drop of salty dew finds its way underneath my shirt. Ranked #2 in the class, but still human; an impromptu eight-page exam is enough to jingle anyone’s medals.
I look up.
Our teacher, and tormentor, wears his customary blue polo in contrast to the blackboard, still chalked with hieroglyphics from yesterday’s algebra. He nods and offers me a mischievous grin.
“Don’t forget to read the test before you begin.”
I bite off the ballpoint pen’s cap and plaster true or false as fast as my pale, fat fingers allow it. Five minutes in, I turn to Viviana, one of the smarter students, on my left. The tanned girl with wet, curly hair sits cross-legged, paper down, and a half-smile on her face.
Her brown eyes enlarge just the tiniest when she finds mine. The smile widens. I sweat again, then devour the next six pages so fast I almost start a fire:
‘Describe the theme.’
‘Discuss the protagonist’s conflict.’
‘What is at stake?’
One last swipe and the wretched words beam. Mr. T’s closing statement explains his grin:
‘Write your name, today’s date and place your test face down. I will come to your desk and grade you 100%.
Thank you for following instructions.
Enjoy your day – E. Torres.’
“Maldición,” I say, damning all, and break the pen.
Mr. Torres taught me a life-long lesson that day. And it’s not about following instructions. His advice later solved complex Calculus with me in college. Joined me for many insightful shower thoughts. And debugged crazy-difficult software glitches over a Microsoft desk.
‘You are not alone inside that head.’
The subconscious is a powerful tool. We don’t control the wonderful beast, yet there it is, gifting knowledge, perspective and wondrous creativity. Your brain quietly analyzes all you read and hear and see. Visualizing math problems iterates over memorized equations. Breaking for coffee from buggy code dreams up new threads to follow.
The subconscious even assists with programming interviews. Next time you schedule a field trip to the accursed whiteboard, bring a cup of something, anything. When the interviewer barks, lift the blessed holder of refreshment to your lips and sip. Every conscious micro-moment equals two laps around the Sun of behind-the-scenes computation.
The rule reigns true in creative writing as well. It is the reason many editors, literary agents, writers both published or starving – and published and starving – recommend we ‘Put down the manuscript for a few hours,’ ‘Read another’s book,’ or ‘Let the query letter breathe a week before re-reading the draft.’
Efficient proofreading and editing require perspective. Polishing manuscripts into art requires ruthless perspective. Dean Gloster shares this meaningful quote: “Write without fear; edit without mercy.” Separating ourselves from newborn prose gains us the mythical perspective writers valiantly seek.
Mr. Torres and I never crossed paths again. He was a wise one, that man and his mischievous grin. He was kind too; kind enough to gift me another blank sheet before the other kids discovered his shenanigans. With Viviana’s tip and a teacher’s clemency, little Alvin scored 100%.
Next time your fingertips crawl, or the muse huffs and spits out sand, don’t be hasty. Your brain already read the test. It wrote the damn thing.
Walk away. Try it. Walk away and let the subconscious fill your cup. Then drink and advance with caution, impartial and refreshed, as one with the monster inside your head.
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