Writing For Popularity In Grade School

A.T. Steel

How I became one of the ‘cool kids’ through my passion

I have been a writer for as long as I can remember. Once I learned how to read, I volunteered to pool allowances with my brother so that we could spend them on Goosebumps books that we would take turns reading. He always got to read first, and I would pester him to tell me what the story was about. I didn’t mind knowing what to expect — I actually preferred it as a child. Those creepy tales of goblins, haunted masks, mutants, vampires, and teenage angst were my introduction to the literary world. Even though I can never look back at them with any clarity without the magic of their memory fading into simplistic prose and absurdity of plot, I would still keep my collection safe for my child to enjoy when they are old enough to string words together on paper.

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The first thing I ever wrote was a horror story heavily inspired by the 1996 video game Clock Tower that I probably shouldn’t have been allowed to play. I was nine years old. It opened with a girl in a dark kitchen, hiding from a murderer fumbling about on the upstairs level of her suburban home. She is desperately trying to get to the front door without alerting him, and she can even hear people on the street outside. Before she is able to make her way, the hunchbacked psychopath clambers down the stairs brandishing a giant pair of scissors that look like lawn clippers. She makes a crazed run for the door anyway, but doesn’t survive. She is the quintessentially disposable First Girl, and her death is meant to introduce the reader to the real central figure: the murderer. Most of these early stories were whimsical practice, and I started new ones all the time — eager to try different scenarios and characters.

I was always fresh on ideas about plot but, when I ran out of characters, I turned to my everyday life for inspiration. I still remember the names of the popular kids in class — likely a testament to how important social status is to a child, no matter how shy or strange they are. Danny, Nick, Amy, and Brittany. Andrew was also mildly popular, but he was a pretender — a false idol— and I looked right past him after Danny embarrassed him with a stunning uppercut to the stomach, right through the arms of the teacher pulling them apart.

Putting these four titans of Mrs. Shupin’s fourth-grade class into my stories seemed like the natural path out of my inspirational drought. I wrote countless things with them in different roles but they were always in the same character archetypes. Danny was the jock — sometimes the hero, but always the brashest. Amy was the blonde bimbo — always making the wrong decision that led to deeper trouble. Brittany was the Final Girl — exempt from any serious harm, as I had too much of a crush on her to put something like that to paper. And Nick was the scholar — the guy with all the rational answers. Every scenario I put them in was a survival horror, most definitely persuaded by the strands of my early reading affinities and the video games that I loved. Zombies chased them through the dark alleys of a nameless city; faceless monsters haunted them at a cabin in the woods; and the psychopath with the lawn shears stalked them through an Addams Family-style mansion. In the beginning, whilst I scribbled away in my notebook during class, I imagined these stories were a private thing for me to enjoy. I did not share them with my brother, mother, father, or friends. I wrote because it was fun — because of the rush that it gave me to create something. I never expected anyone else to get their hands on my stories and I might have even feared the possibility. But, like most things I feared, it eventually came to pass anyway.

One of the lesser plebeians in class found my notebook when I stepped away from my desk and the moment they saw the names of the characters, they sounded the alarm. Over came the four of them, in defense of their reputations, surrounding me, who had come scrambling back to my precious writing. Danny took the notebook first and he read it aloud. I was petrified. Amy kept asking about herself, confused about why she was in the story at all. Brittany was concerned about whether or not she “liked” anyone in it. Nick was just curious and kept trying to take the notebook for himself.

To my surprise, Danny was excited about the story. He smiled as he read aloud and, when he got to the end, he wanted to know what was going to happen next. Amy was upset that I had written her as pinning over Danny, even though she really was, and she told Mrs. Shupin, who sternly admonished me:

“I always wondered what was in those stories. Now it makes sense. You can’t write any more stories with anyone from class!”

I hadn’t even momentarily considered taking her seriously. I wrote more that same day. Nick and Danny moved their seats to sit next to me and inform my creativity. And, just like that, I was instantly thrust into the whirlwind of popularity.

The following morning, they called me over to their fabled table to discuss my next project. It seemed that Amy had come around and she too had some very specific input for her character. I can’t even remember a single thing that any of them requested, but I remember feeling a certain wildness of creativity that galvanized my craft. I had an audience — a fan base, if I could be so bold—and they hung on every word that I wrote. As to sate and nurture their hunger, I wrote all day — improving upon and expanding my ability. I shunned the simple commoners as I walked through the halls, sat with the cool kids during lunch, and pulled up seats at a table in the corner during free time to have our little business meetings where we would hash out how the next situation was going to unfold in the current story. Sometimes, I threw in one of the other kids in class as tertiary characters, killed off or making a brief cameo appearance in a single paragraph.

I rapidly gained a reputation as a fearless artist and, during lunch, when I wasn’t sitting with the other luminaries, kids that I didn’t even know would approach me and ask to read my stories. Some particularly seedy characters would ask if I could write them into the mix to do dirty and violent things. I was far too polite and socially inept to outright refuse, so I often led them on until I reconnected with my crew. Few would dare approach us then, lest they be burned to a crisp by our blinding glory.

The teacher had undoubtedly caught on that I had ignored her instruction to stop writing, but even she couldn’t stop us now.

Nick and I developed a very close friendship built upon writing. Inspired by me and my newfound fame, he began writing stories as well. At first, I was angry with him for copying my thing, but when he came to me for advice, I realized that it wasn’t about showing off. He wasn’t writing for anyone but himself, just like I had done when I was a lowly plebeian. We would share our ideas, let each other read our work, and chatter about what we were going to do next before abruptly splitting apart to write on opposite ends of the room. I watched him from where I sat sometimes, numinous as he was, and wondered if I had helped him to discover this creative part of himself. Obviously, my thoughts were in some mercurial form that I could not isolate or fully comprehend at the time, but can still remember and piece together in hindsight. I was only nine years old, but I was cognizant enough to know that something real was happening inside of him that I lacked the words or sophistication to describe. That may have been why I put aside feelings of jealousy and helped to nurture that thing as best I could — gaining a friend and compatible partner.

This collaboration continued until the end of the school year. Fifth grade was the beginning of middle school, and I was moved to a school across town where I was certain I would revert back into an unpopular dope. But, Brittany was in my class, and we gravitated toward each other almost immediately — two nervous ten-year-olds in a new school as far from home as either of us had ever been without our parents. She remembered my stories and we sat together during our free time. She needed glasses now, which I found surprising, but she was too towering a social figure for it to ostracize her. Slowly but surely other confident kids in class started to join us during our meetings to discuss how they wanted their characters to behave in the next project. Brittany was my connection to their crowd and it was through her that I retained my popularity

I kept writing until, in the middle of the school year before my February birthday, we moved. Our new home was in a rural area surrounded by forested acres and long, dirt roads that lead nowhere. I soon abandoned my writing in favor of climbing trees, sitting on the roof of the house, and getting lost in the woods. I didn’t know anyone in my new middle school and I quickly gained a reputation for being quiet and shy. It would be a long time before I started writing again, but, when I did, it was with a hot fever, the memory of having an audience seared into my mind.

I remained a commoner for the duration of middle school. But, for one glorious year and a half, I was one of the most popular kids in class.

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You can also check out my personal blog Metallically Black where I talk about writing, life, dying, and what have you.

Take a look at an excerpt from LGBTQ/Transgender literary fiction novel

The Life Of Alma

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A QUEER, BLACK LITERARY ARTIST TALKING ABOUT LIFE, SOCIAL ANXIETY, DISSOCIATION DEPRESSION, LGBTQIA+ ISSUES 🏳️‍⚧️🏳️‍🌈, SEX, AND DEATH.

Brooklyn, NY
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