Sophie is wailing, “But I wanna sleep with the verminnnnnnnnn!” and I am saying, “Sorry honey, but you got to sleep with the vermin last night, and you girls have really got to stop fighting over it, especially considering the vermin is mine” when it occurs to me that this is not something a normal family would discuss at bedtime. Or ever.

The pestilence in question is a plush pastel snugglebug that a high school friend gave me to commemorate our mutual loathing of Kafka. His novella The Metamorphosis was part of the curriculum in our AP English class, and the opening line was sufficient in itself to scar me for life: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” If your muscles aren’t violently twitching themselves out of your own skin right now, I’m not sure we can stay friends.

However, even with the squeam factor and the bedtime squabbles, I hold my vermin dear, and this is why: in that same AP English class, I received my first D.

It was only a couple of weeks in. I had been coasting along on the natural rapport I’d always shared with academia (not counting math, of course), cranking out essays that met my teacher’s checklist of requirements. And then, wham—my first D, branded onto my analysis of Knowles’s A Separate Peace in red ink. My teacher, understanding me far better than I knew, called me over after class to explain. I could do far better, she urged. I had been churning out the bare minimum I needed to maintain my GPA, but my writing had carried the dead weight of a chore. “This will be easy to remedy,” she assured me with a smile.

That was the day I began to see the English language as a flea market of unsung treasures. I sat down to write my next assignment with new eyes, turning other people’s words over in my palm until I found a new fit for them. Living books reached out for living responses, and checklists became nothing more than display cases. I still have my papers from that class, tucked into a manila folder for posterity and the occasional re-reading, and my essays after that D reflect the joy of writing which later inspired my switch to an English degree program (after two false starts) and breathed this blog into life and continues to tug me like a tango partner to the page.

The final exam in that AP English class twelve years ago was an analysis of Kafka’s use of distortion in The Metamorphosis. Even if the topic hadn’t sent my delicate sensibilities into convulsions, each of the book’s characters was deeply unlikable, and I let my loathing for it all carry my essay past the cut and the dry. It received an A+, but that’s not what compels me to steal my plush vermin back from the girls’ room when they’re not looking.

No, I forego the inspiration boards and idea forums and artistic e-courses and instead use this adorably revolting toy to remind myself that a heart-blank page is easier than I think to remedy.

We all love the Vermin

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  1. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read Metamorphosis. I really need to read it. Although, your assessment has me questioning if I REALLY NEED to or not. I love, love, love this post. That English teacher changed your life. It is the kind of teacher that I aim to be. This inspires me so much, I hope that someday I have that same effect on one (or more) of my students. Thank you so much for sharing!

  2. I love this post on so many levels it’s impossible to quantify.

  3. Megsie – It’s not exactly pleasant reading, so I wouldn’t feel too upset about missing out. And oh how I hope you get to hear similar things from one of your students one day. English teachers have always been the most inspirational to me–one in junior high, the AP high school one, and then my mentor at university–and they truly did help shape my life.

    Liz – {{love}}

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