In 8th grade, I wrote an essay about the Constitution for a contest. I don’t remember what my essay was about exactly, but I’m sure it was full of big words. I was the kind of fat little girl who wasn’t particularly funny or particularly pretty, so I instead tried to be particularly smart. I read all the thick books on the high school reading lists my mother printed out, and I paid rapt attention at every historical fort or clapboard house we stopped at on family trips. I went to space camp, computer programming camp, and science camp at the boys’ school. I was sickeningly stuck up, full of my teachers’ praise and the adoring pitying eyes of other parents (other parents always feel pity towards the really dorky kid). I thrived on the adulation of adults.
The only other real competition I had for this contest was a boy in my own grade named David. He was a smart, popular, very cute boy and I was in love with him, in that obsessive selfish way that only a 12 year old girl can love another 12 year old boy. I wrote his name on every surface I owned. So of course, to his face, I was even more stuck up, even more prone to awkward bitchy comments. Years later, when we were friends after high school and drank in neighborhood bars together, he was the only one of my middle school friends who remembered me as angry and mean.
The day they announced the winner of the contest, they called me and David out of class and brought us downstairs to the school library in the basement. It was a small room across from the cafeteria, and the nun who ran it was old and feature less, in my memory her face has been rubbed out with an eraser. Mr. Harkness, our English teacher was also down there with her, waiting. Mr. Harkness was the "mean" teacher in a school full of nuns and hippies, he looked at every child under his care as a lead poisoned drooling moron, except his tiny circle of golden students, to which David and I both belonged. David because of his general charm and intellect, and me because of my passive weirdness and ability to follow directions. Mr. Harkness had a sharp nose, was very tall, and taught me the worst thing any teacher could do to me was disapprove. He stared down at the two little scholars waiting anxiously in front of him.
“ It was very close, you both did very well, but David has won first place and Bridget, you’re runner up. David, this means you get to choose what you would like as a prize.” Mr. Harkness gestured to the two very large heavy books to choose from - a Oxford dictionary and an anthology of science fiction short stories. My heart dropped. I had no use for a dictionary, and what 8th grade boy wouldn’t choose science fiction? Imagine my surprise when David actually, of his own volition, chose the dictionary! I couldn’t believe my luck. I wonder now if he did it on purpose, because in the end he turned out to be the kind of adult who would do that for a colleague, and I turned out to have no subtlety at all, ever, my entire life, so it must have been obvious which one I wanted. I always stare at things I want.
The book weighed 20 pounds and had a bright orange hard cover with gold writing on it spine. It was the first science fiction I had ever read that wasn’t written for children and therefore silly. There were beautiful descriptions of ships crossing stars, alien religions, time travelers and tech junkies and sentient computers. The stories were all from the early golden days of science fiction, when everything was published in magazines and all concepts were new and fresh. Every classic storyline was there - the cold war robots who killed their masters, the mining camps full of clones on Mars, Japanese dinosaurs brought back in time, the aliens who trick the kids because they are children and easily manipulated, the little black box that connected you to Big Brother/society and was the very first smart phone. Over the past 20 years, I have gone back over and over again to this book to find some image stuck in my head, or a description that tugs at me.
Later there would be other collections and anthologies and magazines, there would be O'Connor and Atwood and Fitzgerald, but that was the day I fell in love with the short story.