In which I realize I didn't win a writing contest as a kid
When I was in elementary school, I once won a writing contest without even being aware I had entered. My memories are a little fuzzy, but here's what I recall:
Our class was asked to write and illustrate a short story. We would bind the stories into little make-shift books using construction paper and yarn and give them to our parents to treasure. After all, what's a parent's job if not to treasure all the crap that their kids bring home from school?
As far back as I can remember, I've always been attracted to the morbid, unusual and creepy. I once got in trouble in third grade for telling a fellow student about Prince Alberts. I used to trade UNSOLVED MYSTERIES synopses on the playground like other kids traded baseball cards. I was obsessed with THE X-FILES, and books about cryptozoology. In other words, I was a weird kid - so, naturally, any short story I wrote was going to follow suit.
For this particular assignment, I transcribed a story my oldest sister had told me while we sat alone in the car, waiting for my parents to buy a Christmas tree. Free from the supervision of a responsible adult, my sister took glee in sharing with me the classic urban legend about the babysitter menaced by a killer who is ... dun, dun, dun ... calling from within the house. My sister's version of the story ended with the babysitter and her young wards having their heads chopped off with an axe. I think the killer might have worn a Santa suit. Or that might have just been a detail I embellished when I wrote my version of the story the following week in class.
My version, accompanied with brightly colored illustrations featuring frightened children hiding in the closet from a blade-wielding Santa Claus, was told with all the frantic energy a small child could muster. Exclamation points followed run-on sentences and thoughts trailed off, replaced by colorful metaphors. In other words, my writing style hasn't changed much!
I don't have a copy of the book today (oh, how I wish I did) but I remember thinking it was quite good. That's why I wasn't super surprised when my teacher told me I had won a contest and was to read my short story in the principal's office to some visiting dignitaries.
For years I would share this story - bragging to friends about how great of a writer I was from a young age. I would laugh about how my teacher must have seen a young Stephen King in me - or at the very least a burgeoning Dean Koontz. Flash forward nearly 30 years and I have finally realized something - I never won that contest.
Like a man recovering a repressed memory of being fondled by an uncle or abducted by an alien (the same thing most of the time - Thanks UNSOLVED MYSTERIES and THE X-FILES!), I have realized that there were no other winners in this supposed "contest." I was the only kid in that office reading my short story.
If I had won a contest, surely I would have read that story in front of an assembly of my peers - kids love showing off in front of other kids and teachers love using this truth to kill time in the school day. I might have even been invited to read my story over the PA system (I had a very good speaking voice as a kid). But no, I read my story and showed off the pictures in a small conference room surrounded by adults - none of them smiling that sloppy grin of an adult filled with admiration for the skills of youth. My parents weren't even there - or notified I won the contest. They were surprised (and if we're being honest, a little unimpressed) when I told them about it that evening.
In retrospect, I'm pretty sure I was actually called into the office to be evaluated by psychologists or child care professionals. I was a grade school kid writing a story about a murderous Santa killing a babysitter. I had drawn illustrations of Santa holding the decapitated head of a smiling child and grinning ear to ear! What kind of school would have given something like that recognition? But, then again, what kind of school would lie to a kid and tell him he had won a contest when he was really being scoped out by shrinks.
This was years before school shootings had become commonplace so at least I wasn't automatically thrown onto a list. But, all the same, I feel like a piece of my childhood has been corrupted - I was lied to about my skills as a writer, I was misled about my storytelling prowess. Instead, I was put in a room with a bunch of narcs and gawked at like the weird little creepy kid I was.
Boy, I wish I still had that book. It's probably evidence somewhere deep in the archives of Quail Valley Elementary but if I could read it one more time, if I could glance upon the illustrations - maybe I would know for sure if I was truly a writing prodigy or just a fraud.
One thing is for certain - I was a thief. Nowhere in that book did I give my sister a "Story by" credit. When asked by the principal how I had come up with the story, I told her I had dreamed it. Some things never change.