(Not) My Writing Desk

The desk belonged to my grandfather. When I was a child, the large pane of glass protecting its fake leather top impressed me. He conducted the last dregs of his legal practice there when his mind and body started to fade. It came to me not as an heirloom but a way to clear out the house after he died. It is not my writing desk.

I felt elated by surviving seven years of prep school, until my grandfather had a fatal stroke at my graduation. As the ambulance pulled up, a teacher approached me to address some unfinished business, telling me someday we’d meet again and say what we needed to say. Three years earlier, this man had read a page-long list of my personality faults to my class. Now, I cried into his tie, not because I forgave him or thought he could console me but in shock over the looming loss. My father pulled me away.

The list, in green pen, resembled a note passed by a high school boy. But I heard it first, recited aloud like a litany of dictionary definitions. “Ignorant: lacking knowledge or intelligence; best example, Teresa Miller in 4th period English.” My sin had been criticizing the music playing as I walked in. Once he dismissed us, I approached his desk, asked for the paper, and taped it to the front of my shirt, later stapling it to my backpack until it fell apart, like reversing a spell.

His attention would follow me into adulthood, through a condolence card and regrets for not attending my father’s memorial service, though he had not been invited. Through a comment on an online publication. I was, he said, an utterly unforgettable student.

Among the cast of authority figures, he seemed common. The study hall monitor who let my peers lounge outside on the grass but commanded me to sit next to his desk while he called the school auction organizer and asked whether he should donate male lap dancers or female ones. The eighth-grade English teacher who lectured us against a self-portrait of his naked ass and quizzed the shortest, shiest boy, still round with baby fat, about what he thought his first time would be like.

Before starting prep school, I felt most excited about the desks, standalone with a gray formica top and a built-in chair. They signaled maturity and the trappings of a foreign land, like stepping into a novel. At the hippie elementary school run by my best friend’s mother, we sat in a circle or at square tables. During independent work time, I often sprawled on the floor. Now, I would grow up.

The world takes its shape from the blind spots and traumas passed among generations as much as from the striving and aspirations of any one lifetime. Some lineage of emotional sleepwalking brought us to this particular moment in history. I woke from my own trance enough to find my way back to the floor, unfettered by a piece of furniture better suited to storing old receipts than shaping my next chapter.


A two-time National Poetry Series finalist and graduate of the Mills College MFA program, Teresa K. Miller is the author of sped (Sidebrow) and Forever No Lo (Tarpaulin Sky) as well as co-editor of Food First: Selected Writings from 40 Years of Movement Building (Food First Books). She has taught college English and K–12 special education. With musician Gregory Giles, she co-created a conversational essay series for Berfrois, which includes a recent installment in Berfrois: The Book (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019).

Submit a comment