The concession stand was closing as I rushed into the building, and after debating for three blocks whether or not to pick up a bite to eat, I dived inside and grabbed a bag of Dorito’s before my better instincts could prevail.
Signs just outside the elevators informed me the chips were forbidden, and I crammed one in my mouth, hoping Millie was stuck in transit so I could finish my snack.
She was staring expectantly at the door as I entered the study lounge. She grinned when she saw me, an ordinarily welcoming expression that registered as sadistic at that moment. I really wanted to eat those chips.
I dropped my bag on the table and pulled out my copy of Naked, Drunk, and Writing instead.
“Hi Millie, how was your weekend,” I asked with resignation.
Her reply faded into a Caribbean-accented lull in my ears as I thumbed through the pages of my favorite writing guide. Millie was learning the basics of essay writing, and I had thought the book would have some illuminating examples for her.
Then I noticed the content of the workbook spread out before her. The lesson was on commas. Not punctuation as a whole, just commas. I knew then that Naked, Drunk, and Writing held nothing that could help us.
The head of the study hall managed to dredge up a writing prompt on birth order, and after reading the passage aloud together, I asked Millie which paragraph she thought most truthful. Oldest children, she told me, so we set up a thought cloud together using the adjectives brave, disciplined, and responsible.
Slowly, painstakingly, I was able to tease supporting arguments from her. Offering up example topic sentences gave way to an exercise in taking dictation, and teaching Millie how to write an entire essay seemed futile.
Then, it happened. Somewhere in that thought cloud, memories of ten siblings rattling around a shack in the Dominican Republic had crept out of hiding. The writing that moments before had been hesitant was now flowing from her pencil. Millie wrote of an orphaned friend calling the cops on an intruder to protect her family, and an elder sister who sewed clothes for the babies and made sure everyone got to school.
The grammar was horrendous, the punctuation wobbly, and the vocabulary utterly lacking. But Millie had an eye for detail, and from that detail, I knew a writer could emerge – even if it took us 40 drafts of that essay.