I found the application on my desk after we came back from lunch recess.
It was for a writing contest.
Presented by Disney.
My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Sharp, left it for me to find.
The elementary aged winner got to see their story turned into an animated short on the Disney Channel. There was a prompt, a word limit, a deadline.
And I was going to win the damn thing.
It’s been 23 years since that contest and now I’m living in New York City while my husband is in LA and I’ve been working as writer for Jimmy Fallon – Hi! It’s been a minute! – and the pandemic is so peak right now that writing about anything else feels very stupid.
I remember the application sitting on my desk, with the big Disney D (backwards G) stamped on the top.
I remember where I was sitting in the classroom (in the front near the chalkboard), as well as my haircut (very bad and likely the reason I got into comedy), and I remember Mrs. Sharp’s grey hair, tan skin, bad teeth and wrinkled lips.
Memory is such a funny thing, isn’t it? What details it grasps on to and what others it chooses to let fade away.
The New York sublet I am in right now gets hot at night, and I often have to wake up at 3am to turn on the very convenient air conditioning unit in the window. I can never go back to sleep. I should just remember to turn it on when I am going to bed but I never seem to. It’s hard to remember everything, on your own. God, I hope I’m washing my hands enough.
I don’t remember if I wrote my story for this Disney contest on a computer or by hand. I remember there was a word count because staying within the word count was hard for even ten-year-old me. Bad hair or not, this gal has always been long-winded. I wrote a story about Billikens because my dad had a sweatshirt from his alma mater with one on it and when I asked him what it was he told me it was a Billiken and I took it from there.
It’s 3am in New York and I am awake. I am loving my job and all the people I’m working with and I want to make them proud and I want to thrive but I am also scared that I don’t know what I am doing and also that I’m going to get sick in this city all alone. And maybe I should focus on figuring out how to get home and not think about anything else right now.
Mrs. Sharp was an exceptional fourth grade teacher. She had these big stickers shaped like eyes on the door of our backpack closet that made the closet look like a big dragon face, where the door handles were the nostrils. When Mrs. Sharp was frustrated with the class she would have a student draw big, red veins on the eyes so we would know we were in trouble.
One time, the teacher’s pet, Danielle Winslow (I was also the teacher’s pet, but Danielle was more like number one teacher’s pet and I was just the silver medal, also we were super best buds) was in charge of drawing the red eye veins in the dragon eyes and accidentally drew on one eye with permanent marker. Mrs. Sharp laughed it off and said that she was just going to be half angry for the rest of the year.
Memories are strange. They come and go, with seemingly no motive.
They sent us home from work today, and I am back in the sublet, packing my suitcase for LA.
I remember that while writing the Billikens story I would often stare at that one dragon eye sticker, wiping the permanent red veins away with my mind. Trying desperately to mentally wipe everything clean.
I have Lysol-ed the hell out of my sublet, and vacuumed and washed the sheets. After waiting on hold for an hour and a half with Jetblue, I got a 7am direct flight to LA. I’ve decided to forgo sleep for the night and watch episodes of The Office until Pam and Jim’s wedding, which is where I usually stop my binge. I sit by the door until my lyft to the airport arrives.
The Billikens story was about how everyone thought Billikens were leprechauns but they weren’t leprechauns and they were going to set out to prove once and for all that they were different, that they are their own tiny elf things with powers. It was a good story. Cute.
I don’t remember how I submitted my Billiken story. I assume it was through mail. We weren’t doing email quite yet, this was the mid-90’s. 96? 97?
1997 was when Titanic came out and that was when I was in the fifth grade. For some reason that ‘97/ fifth grade combo has helped me place timelines way better than any “year in review” yearbook page. Good Will Hunting also came out in 1997. Starring Ben Affleck.
So, it was definitely 1996 that I submitted my Billiken story to this contest I was definitely going to win.
God, memory, why are you so weird? Why is all this playing out in my brain… right now?
On this dark and quiet New York morning, where JFK is practically empty and they actually have hand sanitizer and wipes for sale at the news stands. So, that’s the trick, everyone. To get ahold of sanitizer all you need to do is buy a plane ticket and go through airport security. My hands are so dry from all the times I’ve washed them that they are starting to crack. I wipe my chair and sit. Waiting to board. Trying to stay calm. Wondering if I should be flying right now. Knowing I need to get back to LA before someone stops me.
Prior to the Disney contest I was working on a series of mystery “novels” that included every kid in Mrs. Sharp’s class. The main character was Detective Chris Murphy. Kids thought it was because I had a crush on the fourth grade Chris but really he was the lead because he had the best name for a detective. I didn’t even know what a noir was, I just knew Chris needed to wear a trench coat and have a hat that covered his eye and that he would say “gumshoe” a lot.
The first “novel” in the series was clearly the plot of a Family Matters episode I saw once, (I was a plagiarizer and didn’t even know it!) but going forward the mysteries were ones only a ten-year-old could create. It’s crazy to think that my Finding Forester book was an Urkle episode.
I knew that after winning this writing contest with my Billikens story, my whole life was going to change. Maybe my Detective Murphy series could become a Disney cartoon! And then that would mean I was a real, professional writer slash actor. I was going to make it. At age ten.
I’m on the airplane now and there’s not many of us, which feels nice but also tense. In all the scenarios, I never thought this would be the hardest part of starting a new job. There’s a joke there, I think. I just can’t think of one right now.
I didn’t win the Disney writing contest. I didn’t even make it to the second round. Instead, I received a Tinkerbell pen.
Everyone on this flight is wearing a mask or covering their face in some way. There’s a baby behind me. And all the cleaning smells are so potent they’re making me sneeze inside my shirt, causing people in the plane to eye me every time I do. I swear, I’m not sick. I’m just inhaling the peroxide the guy in the row in front of me is pouring onto his seat.
It was a small, purple pen that you twisted to use. And inside of it was a little floating Tinkerbell, that, when tipped over, would fly over to an outline of a castle to do the thing Tinkerbell does to a castle. Magic it? Light it up? Set it on fire?
No one has ordered anything to drink or is watching a movie on their touch screens. I am shivering but I don’t dare ask for a blanket. Everything beyond this moment-by-moment happening seems ridiculous to think about now.
Wait, is Tinkerbell setting the magic castle on fire? Is that what she is doing? Also, why Tinkerbell? She’s from Peter Pan. Castles aren’t even in Peter Pan. Peter Pan is all islands and pirate ships.
I lie down in my empty row, thinking time will pass faster the more horizontal I am. I just need to land in LA and get home.
What kind of decision process happened in order to make “Tinkerbell lighting a castle on fire” become the start of every Disney animated movie? Corporations are weird, man. We don’t question them enough.
I wanted to win a contest and all I got was that stupid Tinkerbell pen. I was heartbroken.
I am lying on this Jetblue plane, about an hour out from LAX, and I feel a tear trickle down my face. I am not sure if it’s because I am crying or because I sneezed earlier or because I am so damn cold. Or if it’s all of those things all at once. Regardless, I sort of like the trickle touching my cheek. I make a note to wipe the seat once I sit back up, but for now, I enjoy the feeling of the trickle.
I don’t remember how I officially received the Tinkerbell pen, I think I was at school. I think Mrs. Sharp gave it to me. Or maybe it was in a big envelope on my desk with a big rejection letter.
Even at age ten, I remember thinking that it was super unthoughtful that Disney gave reject writer kids like me a pen. Ten-year-olds weren’t allowed to write with pens. Only pencils. They should have given us a cool set of pencils. I was not going to write the next Detective Murphy novel with this stupid-ass pen.
The Tinkerbell pen was the first time I learned that pursuing the things I loved was going to be hard. It was the first time I realized life was going to be hard.
And it was the first time my life did not go according to plan.
Memories are here to help you, I think. Maybe it’s okay to get lost in them once in a while.
We’ve landed. I’ve wiped my seat. I’ve grabbed my bag and have walk/jogged off the plane. I get lost looking for baggage claim (God, I hate LAX), but thankfully my bag is one of the first to come out. It’s raining outside. The clouds match the mood. I see my husband pull up in our car. I get in. He grabs my dry, cracked hand. We get home. I pet my cats. I shower. And finally, I collapse in tears.
I am finally where I need to be, and I will be in this apartment for at least the next two weeks. I have no idea when all of this is going to get back to normal. When I can return to my new job. If I ever want to leave my husband again. There’s so much out of my control right now, it’s almost like my brain has needed a break. Like it has needed something else to think about over the last 24 hours.
In Mrs. Sharp’s fourth grade classroom, I both cherished and hated my Tinkerbell pen. For the rest of the year, instead of staring at the veiny dragon eye on our backpack closet, I found myself staring at my pen, tipping it back and forth.
Continuously watching Tinkerbell light the magic castle on fire.
The Tinkerbell pen. I remember every inch of that pen. I wonder where it ended up. If I would ever find it again.
I wonder what my Tinkerbell pen is going to be from right now.
What items are we going to recall to remind us that life doesn’t always go according to plan?
What memories are we going to grab on to from today, to pop into our brains at a later time, for when things are again scary and bizarre and not the norm?
What story are we going to play in our heads when all we’re trying to do is get home?
If you can, between washing your hands and staying inside, let your memories in. Let them remind you of your own life lessons. Let them give you a tiny break from the right now.
Let Tinkerbell light the castle on fire.