Margaret Atwood, Age 17, from First Words

First Words is a collection of early writings from twenty-two famous authors, collected and edited by Paul Mandelbaum. Today we’re featuring one of Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood’s first stabs at short fiction, in which she grapples with some of the themes that will inform her later work. Check back in a couple weeks for Stephen King’s first slasher story, which he wrote at age nine.

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The English Lesson, 1957

Miss Murdock adjusted her thick, steel-rimmed glasses in front of the mirror. She regarded the reflection before her: her own familiar shapeless face with its wispy frame of brownish-gray hair (those wisps would never stay in place—she had ceased to try); the green leather armchair in the corner; the legs of Miss Spencer, the History teacher, who was dozing by the window with her shoes off; and the mirror on the opposite wall that reflected her own reflection. If there were three mirrors, she thought, I would see a whole line of Miss Murdocks, one after the other, all moving together like puppets. She wondered idly why Miss Spencer, who was fifty-six if a day, wore red nail-polish on her toes. She dabbed powder on her biscuity cheeks with her fluttery, irresolute hands, applied her lipstick (unevenly, as usual) in a thick, dark line and blotted most of it off, twitched her pearls and flicked a few crinkly hairs from her collar. I really don’t know why I bother, she thought; struggle, struggle for survival like an amoeba in a glass dish, without purpose, without direction. Miss Spencer stirred in her sleep as the door wheezed shut.

Outside the Lady Teachers’ Room, Miss Murdock plodded down the hall with her habitual wavering gait. There was a time, far back, when she had marched erect—shoulders back, chin up, toes pointing straight ahead—but it was too much effort now. The bell went, and students spurted into the hall. Where was she going?  Where?  Oh yes—Room 6, 10B English—her worst class. Without anticipation, without enthusiasm, without fear, practically without thinking, she would teach grammar rules for half an hour to 10B; then lunch, then classes, then another night and another day. I am a dried-up well, she thought, with dry dead moss around the edges.

She reached her classroom. Everything was as usual. The swell of noisy talking, the muffled cries of “Here come the sheep!!” suddenly stilling as she entered, her own feeble, vacant smile, her bleated half-plea, half-command to open books, all the same, day after day, for ever and ever, world without end. Mechanically, she began to take up the homework, even though she knew that four-fifths of the class had not done it.

“John and I (was, were) going to the store.”

Where was John now? Is there a heaven? She heard her own words, made familiar by memory, coming from afar: “Not yet, John; I want a career first; I want to finish college, and go to Europe for a year; maybe work on a newspaper. But perhaps in a few years…” And then the war and good-bye. And then the letters—ten, fifteen, twenty of them, a line of letters—a line of letters that ceased abruptly, to be followed, it seemed a minute later, by one more—one more letter, edged in black. She had cried then. She never cried now.

A boy in the back row slipped a note across the aisle. A girl tried not to giggle. Miss Murdock ignored them. She realized that her pupils did not respect her for her laxness, her mental laxness that sagged like the ring of fat about her waist and the flabby, freckle-covered muscles at the backs of her arms. She tried to tell herself that it was not good to force children to pay attention, that their interests should develop spontaneously in time, but she felt uneasily that this attitude was just a not-too-effective excuse for laziness.

“I (will, shall) write a letter to-night.”

To write. To write had been to live. To write she had saved and scrimped, scrimped and saved, rejected the bright, gay clothes she had once been so fond of, put herself through college, hating her poverty, waiting for the day she would be famous … She could not pinpoint the exact moment when her resolution deserted her. It had flowed from her in days of drudgery at the office of the newspaper that had hired her, in the nights of remembering, in rejection slips from weekly magazines. Finally she had clutched the once despised security around her and fled to the sheltering shadow of the local high school … fled from the limelight of life to the semi-shade of a slow death. This fertile, cultivated ground was to her a flat, sterile plain, devoid of life, productive only of a monthly pay-cheque. The meaning of her life had seeped through the sand, and she was left wandering in a desert between the dawn that would never come and the sun that had already set.

Miss Murdock sighed. Her class was doing its utmost to be annoying, she reflected. She smiled her feeble smile and continued with the lesson.

“He (ate, eat) his lunch, (which, who) was very good.”

Lunch. In five minutes—no, four—the bell would ring for noon-hour dismissal. In her mind’s eye, she saw herself descending the stairs to the cafeteria, in the faded print dress that looked like a house-coat and didn’t fit; she saw herself buying her sandwich and coffee and sitting down opposite Miss Spencer in the Teachers’ Dining Room; she heard Miss Spencer chirp something about the weather, and saw herself smiling her week smile—smiling vacantly as she watched the coffee dribble down the side of the cup, smiling and smiling through the days of darkening shade, for ever.

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2 Comments On This Post:

November 10, 2011
8:27 am
Gayle Lin says...

Even at that young age, Margaret Atwood was good! Her imagery had me there in the moment.

November 21, 2011
9:32 am
Stephen King, Age 9 | Algonquin Books Blog says...

[…] a collection of early writings by famous authors, edited by Paul Mandelbaum. Last week we shared one of Margaret Atwood’s first short stories. This week, we have a grisly fairytale that Stephen King penned at the tender age of nine.Jhonathan […]

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