Telling Stories by Johanna Harness

15 Feb

As a kid, I remember being asked, “Are you telling me the truth or are you telling me a story?”  Make no mistake.  Telling a story was telling a lie.  It was not a good thing.

That’s not to say I didn’t grow up in a rich storytelling environment.  I did, but my family specialized in the tall tale rather than realistic fiction.  If the anecdote couldn’t be exaggerated and acted out, it probably wasn’t worth telling. Oral tradition ruled the day.

When I entered first grade, I found myself a titch bored with rote phonics lessons, but enamored with my little red desk.  The functional piece featured a solid top and one big opening for all my possessions—and I was such a clever child.

If I squirreled away paper in just the right position, I could write my stories while other students toiled away learning their alphabet sounds.  My teacher might be old and scary, but she’d certainly never encountered this trick before.  I was just that bright.

The old woman circled around the class as she taught, using a yardstick to point up at letters on the wall.  If she called on you to recite a sound, you would keep working at it until you got it.  She never-ever provided the mercy of calling on another student to answer for you. That woman would latch on and make your life miserable until you knew the right answers.

So that day I wasn’t particularly worried about the teacher’s circling.  She’d vice-gripped her attention on a little boy in the front row and already completed several laps around the room. While she waited for him to guess every sound he could imagine and work through at least three rounds of bargaining with God, I scribbled.

The yard stick came out of nowhere.  I heard it whistle by my ear before it smacked down on that pretty desk with the loudest THWACK I could imagine.

I jumped so high I almost toppled out of my chair.  My pencil and paper fell to the floor.

The old lady grabbed me by the ear and pulled me to the front of the classroom.  She had a reputation for this and we all thought it must hurt horribly, but really the humiliation was the worst of it. The horror of being dragged from my desk in front of all those kids made tears spring to my eyes.  She dropped me in a chair, where she could “keep an eye on me” and then turned back to the poor kid who couldn’t think what sound W-H made in combination.  Only moments earlier, I’d felt sorry for him, but now I’d earned his pity.

When the teacher kept me in from recess, I was pretty sure I was done for.  None of the other students would ever see me again.  I wished I’d told my mom I loved her.

After all the other kids disappeared from the room, our teacher click-click-clicked over to my desk and snatched the paper from the floor.

Yes.  I know.  Not only wasn’t I paying attention in class, I also spent my time telling stories—lying.  And why was I lying?  Oh, it was time for my own bargaining with God.  I was lying because it was fun.

The click of her heels returned to me more slowly.  She must be devising a fitting death for a child so bad.

When she stopped at a big wooden cabinet, I wondered what instrument of torture she had inside.




She hovered.  I winced.  Then, gently, she placed a piece of red construction paper in front of me.  She folded it in two and ripped it apart.  Then she took my paper and ripped it in two.

And then she did the damndest thing.  She placed those sheets of my story inside the red paper and she grabbed something from her desk.

Her fist came down hard. . . on a stapler.


I jumped again.

She turned the pages toward me.  “Your book needs a cover.”

I never saw it coming.

I never forgot it.

She was the best teacher ever.


Posted by on February 15, 2012 in inspiration, writers, writing


Tags: , , , ,

25 responses to “Telling Stories by Johanna Harness

  1. Liz Flaherty

    February 15, 2012 at 4:54 AM

    What a great story!

  2. Diana Jackson

    February 15, 2012 at 6:01 AM

    Vivid memories eh Joanna! Those who inspire us on our journey live with us forever!

    • Johanna Harness

      February 15, 2012 at 6:43 AM

      So true. We have so many teachers in our lives.

  3. Zehra Cranmer (@ZehraCranmer)

    February 15, 2012 at 6:01 AM

    such a magical story… I think many of us have very similar ones. Thank you for sharing this Johanna, it’s a reminder of where and when it all began X

    • Johanna Harness

      February 15, 2012 at 6:50 AM

      Thank you, Zehra. Those childhood impressions remain so strong and vivid.

  4. JC Rosen

    February 15, 2012 at 6:16 AM

    You poor little thing, left all alone to fend off the dragon lady, only to be discovered telling stories. A gripping and terrific story of your storytelling origins, Johanna, thanks for this. Just keep telling stories and we’ll make sure we never run out of covers for them.

    Take care,

    • Johanna Harness

      February 15, 2012 at 6:57 AM

      Thank you, Jess. I read this story to my 6yo daughter and saw my then-emotions play out on her face. She gave me a big hug afterward and patted my head.

  5. Liz Fredericks

    February 15, 2012 at 7:07 AM

    Ok – you yanked my heart out with this one. The story began and I was ready to do battle on your behalf (you’re so cute in the picture!!) and then . . . you are a marvelous writer. And your teacher surely recognized this even at the earliest stage.

    • Johanna Harness

      February 18, 2012 at 8:14 AM

      Thank you so much, Liz. Your comments mean the world to me.

  6. Janis McCurry

    February 15, 2012 at 7:10 AM

    “I wished I’d told my mom I loved her.” Great line. I laughed out loud. Thanks for the great story.

    • johannaharness

      February 22, 2012 at 10:32 AM

      I love that I made you laugh. Humor is such a weird thing. I can never tell if something is going to be funny to anyone but me.

  7. florence fois

    February 15, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    Johanna, that is one of the best “how I became a writer” stories I have heard to date. Out of the dozens of teachers we encounter, we only need one … that one single person who for some reason sees into us and knows who we really are. Loved this post, the picture (how adorable), the memory of your teacher and the beginnings of a life-long love of the word. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • johannaharness

      February 23, 2012 at 8:19 AM

      Thank you so much, Florence. And yes! It only takes on teacher. They are amazing, aren’t they?

  8. Jason

    February 15, 2012 at 9:21 AM

    So many excellent lines in this story “oral tradition ruled the day” and “three rounds of bargaining with God” are two of my favorite. Great timing, wonderful surprise ending. I guess the teacher, although a bit harsh, could recognize real talent!

    • johannaharness

      February 23, 2012 at 11:01 AM

      I love your specific feedback, Jason. And yeah, she was harsh, but she knew how to make an impression. 🙂

  9. Sharla

    February 15, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    That is awesome!!!!! And it brought tears to my eyes, I swear. Love it when you hear stories of amazing teachers we never forget. I had an English teacher once who threw a paperback book at me…across the room. Everybody ducked. It was one of those required reading things and it was horrible and I was reading something else instead. I hadn’t read the chapters we were supposed to be up to, and he made a horrible spectacle of me. After class he called me up and asked me what I was reading. He told me to read two chapters each night of the required one before reading for fun, but to never ever stop reading for fun. We got to talking about books and compared what we were reading every week after that. He would talk to me about what I wanted to be and college ideas over the year. He was a scary and crazy teacher, but I never forgot him.

    I love the way you wrote this, Johanna!! I was right there with your first grade self! 🙂

  10. Peggy Staggs

    February 15, 2012 at 11:38 AM

    What a great story and I love a good story. A teacher can make all the difference in the world. My first grade story isn’t as positive. I’m glad yours was.

  11. Meredith Conner

    February 15, 2012 at 1:07 PM

    Great story Johanna.

  12. Mary Vine

    February 15, 2012 at 3:53 PM

    I keep saying I love your blogs and I’ll say it again-love your blog posts.
    I could never cause trouble in my class, so I looked out the window and daydreamed my stories.

  13. Lynn Mapp

    February 15, 2012 at 4:10 PM

    I felt your shame. I was angry with the teacher. How dare she do that to you. Then I got to the end. It was the darnest thing, there was all this moisture in my eyes. What a great story.

  14. Marsha R. West

    February 15, 2012 at 5:12 PM

    Great post, Johanna. I’m like Mary. Stared out the windows into all kinds of strange lands. Didn’t put pencil to paper until I was in 8th grade and wrote a play. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing this story. It remeinds all of us to look a little deeper at the people we see around us who we are so quick to judge. As a former teacher and retired elementary principal, boy was I ever judging your teacher. Glad it all turned out so well.

  15. John Ross Barnes

    February 16, 2012 at 3:06 PM

    As usual, I’m late to the party.

    That was a great Story. I mean this one, though the one you wrote then must have been pretty good too.

    Thanks for this bit of Charming at the end of childhood Harrowing. Your are today’s Queen of the Twisty Ending!

  16. Clarissa Southwick

    February 19, 2012 at 3:45 PM

    What a wonderful story, Johanna. I too remember getting in trouble–for reading, not writing– while I was supposed to be learning the alphabet. I don’t remember anything but the humiliation, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t have a happy ending like this one.

    How lucky you were to have such an encouraging teacher. She obviously recognized your talent. Thanks for sharing this memory.

  17. Phyllis Ring

    March 3, 2013 at 6:49 AM

    What a big smile this brought me today. Thanks!


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