I grew up in rural Michigan, in a lower middle class community. One would assume that my education was lacking, but we were lucky in the number of incredible teachers who settled in our area. My seventh grade English teacher, Miss Morpaw, was one of those inspiring educators.
One morning, after we had settled down, Miss Morpaw held up a brown paper grocery bag. She explained that there were several different objects in the bag. Each of us would pull one out. Up and down the aisles she walked, stopping at each desk, holding the bag so that the student couldn’t peek. “Just pull out the first thing you touch.” There was a toy airplane, a Hot Wheels car, a plastic bear. All very cool items to get.
When she stopped next to my desk, I reached in, closed my fingers like the claws in an arcade game and pulled out . . . a marble. A stinking marble. Not even a pretty marble. It was old and scratched. One side was dull blue, the other dark red. A white stripe ran around it. Ugly. “That’s fun,” my teacher said when she saw it.
After everyone had an item, Miss Morpaw returned to the front of the room. “Describe your item. Make a list of all the things you can say about it. Use all your senses.”
I picked up my pencil. Describe the marble. Shiny. Round. Slightly scratched. Red and blue with a white stripe. I rolled it around on my palm. Light in weight. I sniffed it. No smell. Shook it. No sound. There was no way I was going to taste it. That was it. Five things.
“Now, write a story about your item, using those descriptions.” I don’t remember the minimum word count assigned, but I know we had to turn it in the next day. I fretted all afternoon about what kind of story I could write about that stupid marble.
At home, I pulled out my “inspiration” and started to write. “Once upon a time there was a shiny, round, light in weight, slightly scratched, red and blue marble with a white stripe named . . .” And I froze. What kind of name would a marble have? I tapped the eraser against my teeth.
"Stop that," my mother said. Then, "What’s wrong?”
I told her.
She took the marble from me a rolled it across the table. “Well, I’d call it Roly Poly Head-Over- Heels.”
This from the woman who thought she had missed out on the creative gene. She loved music, but didn’t play an instrument and never sang. She read everything, but never considered writing. She cooked wonderful meals for a family of six on a strict budget. She made clothes for all of us, often designing the pattern herself. But she wasn’t creative. In a few seconds, she gave me a name that I’d been struggling over for an hour.
And the story spilled out after that. I made my word count and more. Not only did I get an A+ on the paper, Miss Morpaw told me I should submit it to children’s book publishers. I didn’t have the nerve to do it, because my thirteen-year-old self thought that she’d missed out on the creative gene, too.
I’ve thought about Roly Poly many times over the years. When I started writing as an adult, Roly was one of the early stories I remembered as being deemed “good”. Maybe I should revisit the story. See if I could do anything with it. Who knows?
Now when I doubt my creativity, I remember my mother--the woman who wasn’t creative--and I keep writing.