I wrote this essay during my senior year of high school, for an AP English class project on literacy histories. Later I used it as a college application essay, one of the few that doesn't embarrass me to look back on.

Mr. Stupid, or Learning to Write

I learned to read and write in two languages at a very early age, and to this day I am not sure which languageDutch or English—was my first. I remember that my mother used to tell me everything twice (once in each language) when I was very small, and until the time I started attending school taught in English, my thoughts (those I can remember from the fingerpaint-and-watercolor blur of childhood) were entirely in Dutch. Soon afterward, in kindergarten or first grade, English became my dominant mode of communication, and since then it has been the language in which I am most fluent. Still, I do not believe English to be my primary language. My language is my own, a personal dialect based on English, but augmented by fluent Dutch, years of studied French, words and phrases from German, Italian, Latin, Spanish, and others, not to mention slang and nonsense words that hold meaning for me. It is in my personal dialect, albeit dominantly English, that I do my personal writing, which most accurately reflects the growth and development of my language.

My earliest writings were labels on drawings. Even as a child, I doubted my artistic ability, and attempted to elucidate my creations with carefully placed words. A recurring motif in my childhood artwork is a sort of pastoral self-portrait depicting me as I played outdoors, securely fenced in by the tall pine trees in our backyard, an airplane flying overhead. The plane was usually disproportionately big, so that the passengers were visible, and one of the figures in the circles I had drawn as windows would be a man with a beard who looked down at me as I played, often smiling and waving as I returned his greeting. In many cases, especially if the plane was too small for details such as its passengers' facial hair, there would be an arrow in the sky pointing towards it or the bearded man. Over the arrow my childish handwriting invariably read, "PAPA".

My Papa did do a lot of traveling when I was young, and I can remember a time when I was so accustomed to this idea that I believed that every plane flying overhead had him aboard as a passenger, even if he was really just around the corner. My pictures represented life as I knew it, as it had always been—Tracy in the yard, Papa on the plane to some mysterious far-off land where he "fixed boats". (I remember being hard-pressed to explain that, unlike many daddies, mine had no regular work schedule. He was and still is self-employed, and I am certain I learned the sequence of letters that formed my last name from hearing it spelled countless times over the "business phone".) My pictures, with a little help from labels, told my story, and so for what seems like a long time I used very few words.

Everything changed with the "Mr. Stupid" story. This dubious masterpiece in crayon still hangs from the ceiling on my father's side of the basement, above the tools hung on the wall and the desk which houses our ancient Apple IIGS computer. Although the paper is yellowed and cracked with the weight of dust and age, the picture is as surreal as the day it was drawn. It appears to be a rainbow with fins like a fish and a duckbill. Underneath, in red crayon, is written: "Mr. Stupid has a chld. Forever after." I am certain that this was my first real effort to use words instead of pictures to tell a story. Mr. Stupid (the rainbow-duck-fish) was intended to look ludicrous, because he was. He and his child had many wacky misadventures that were too complicated to draw, much less write, so I had kept my explanation to a bare minimum.

My parents tell me I wrote the Mr. Stupid story when I was a little past three years old—about the time I heard from them that I would soon be a big sister. The idea that my world could change from the fixed image of my pictures was a revelation for me. It is entirely possible that the Mr. Stupid story, and my first real change in literary style, evolved as a result of the shift in my perception of my environment. Mr. Stupid represented my parents, or perhaps me—ridiculous and silly. The nameless, faceless "child" was my imminent sibling. In accepting the reality of my parents' announcement, I decided to make the most of the new situation, just as Mr. Stupid did in all of his wild escapades. Being a big sister would be fun. My story was only the beginning.

Fall 1996

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