The Early Work of Karen J. McLean

There are some days when the words just roll out of my head like smoke from a campfire, or steam from a roiling boil. And then there are evenings like this, when the words evade me, and I stare blankly at the screen.

I distinctly remember the first poem I wrote, and where and when it was written. I was in Mrs. Reece’s class, at Denis Morris Memorial School. I was one of six grade three students in a class of grade fours, and I was supposed to be learning long division. (This would be the beginning of a nearly-decade-long tradition of writing some of my best work in math class.)

Mrs. Reece was a fantastic teacher. I was terrified the day I met her (new school, no friends, and they played a bilingual version of “O Canada” which completely freaked me out because I was supposed to sing and I didn’t know the words), and then wound up with detention for talking too much. (I guess I was trying to fix the “no friends” issue.)

But within three days, I knew that I had lucked out. Mrs. Reece was like the grandmother I’d never had. Friday afternoons we were always shown slides from her various travels across Canada. Every morning we would sing songs together, with Mrs. Reece accompanying us on her autoharp. And Mrs. Reece always encouraged us to be creative, which is why I wasn’t too worried about getting caught writing a poem in math class — which, of course, I did.

“Karen? What are you writing?”

Instinct made me hide my paper; pride forced me to uncover it.

“I’ve written a poem,” I said shyly. And then I held it up, complete with illustration.

Mrs. Reece put down her chalk and walked over to look more closely. On the page was a drawing of what looked to be two sad ice cubes in a puddle.

“May I read it, just to myself?” Mrs. Reece asked.

I nodded.

As I watched her eyes scan the four short lines, I felt electric. Would she like it? Then Mrs. Reece read it again.

Unable to handle the suspense, I blurted out, “If it’s too messy, I can recite it. It’s short!”

And then, without waiting, I began:

If I were an ice cube,

An ice cube were I,

I’d weep and weep,

For soon I would die.

The room was silent. Mrs. Reece looked at me for a long moment, then slowly put the paper back down on my desk.

“That was sad, Karen,” she said, finally. “Words are sometimes just markings on paper, but sometimes they can do so much and say so much more. Poems that can make people sad are good poems.”

Then Mrs. Reece smiled at me. “You should keep writing.”  A pause for emphasis.  “After math class.”

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Karen J. McLean

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  • I love this post! There is so much said between the lines that makes me feel like I know you better after reading it. Your ice poem was terrifically sad! I love the teacher’s reaction. I teach third grade and this memory made me smile.

  • Karen, it’s wonderful that you’ve got such vivid memories of your early years as a writer! I love the line about your nearly-decade-long tradition of writing in math class. Your dialog and details are so much fun–thanks for sharing this memory!

  • This is a fun post. I love the memory you share! Your descriptions are so vivid! I like how you describe your teacher quietly reading your work, encouraging you, and then telling you not to do it during the math lesson! It is so accurate of what one can envision happening! Thanks for sharing it!

  • I love this, I can see it perfectly. And I too had a habit of writing stories in math class lol