Thursday, September 06, 2012
Remembering Barbara McNeely
The art of narrative writing is not an easy one to master, but it is one that I have enjoyed teaching to eighth graders for the past 14 years. A particularly difficult form of narrative writing to master is autobiographical.
Today, my eighth graders began writing their first autobiographical essays, with each student selecting one event in his or her life and telling the story with description, dialogue, and details.
As you might expect, since I teach at Joplin East Middle School, a school that had much of its enrollment affected by the May 22, 2011, tornado, many of them wrote first-person accounts of the event that changed Joplin forever.
Others had events ranging from the hilarious to the horrific. One girl wrote about attending her first dance though she was a terrible dancer. One of my fifth hour students wrote about the time his grandmother ran over his foot.
Many of them wrote about the first time that death struck their families. For some it was a parent. For others, it was a friend. For one, it was his grandfather. The young man was having some difficulty telling the story of his grandfather's death, which happened when he was quite young.
As I always do, I told him to write down the things he remembered about his grandfather, the way he looked, the way his voice sounded.
He surprised me with his response to my suggestions.
"I don't remember what he sounds like," he said, his voice filled with guilt that the voice of someone who had been an important part of his life was forever lost to him.
I reassured him that it was not unusual. I, too, could no longer remember the voices of people who had once been important to me.
And I immediately started thinking about Barbara McNeely. One of the most horrible days of my life was the day I realized I no longer remembered what her voice sounded like.
For the years I attended East Newton High School through my first couple of years attending then Missouri Southern State College, her voice was something I looked forward to hearing every day.
It wasn't always that way. When she was a freshman and I was a sophomore in high school, we were arguing in the lunch room about something that seemed important at the time, but which escapes me four decades later, and I called her an impolite name.
She threw the contents of a carton of milk all over me. For some reason, I began laughing, she began laughing, and from that moment on, we were friends.
When I made an unsuccessful attempt at becoming a teen author, it was Barbara who typed my manuscripts for me and commiserated with me when I received the inevitable rejection letters.
I have no doubt that our friendship would have lasted through the years, but it was not meant to be.
Today marks 35 years since Barbara McNeely, 20, was stabbed to death by a mentally deranged young man who mistook her for his mother in the darkened parking lot at Northpark Mall where Barbara worked at the J. C. Penney store.
Her killer was found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect, was confined to a state hospital, and was later released and is living life with his wife and children in upstate Missouri today, the kind of existence that Barbara was never able to have.
I wish the technology of 2012 had been available in 1977. I would give anything to be able to watch a YouTube video with Barbara in it or see a Facebook page dedicated to her memory.
Sadly, the mentions of Barbara McNeely on the world wide web are few and far between.
Her voice, to me at least, is gone forever, but happily I still vividly remember the things she said, the person she was, and the affect her faith in me had as I have spent the last 35 years writing for various publications and finally, nearly 30 years after she helped prepare my manuscripts, getting my first book published.
So while my students are writing their autobiographical experiences and one is writing about a beloved grandfather whose voice no longer resonates in his mind, I will follow their example and write about someone I loved very much, a friend whose influence in my life I feel 35 years after hers ended much too soon. It was from Barbara that I learned the importance of having faith in the young people who have written for me, through my years as a newspaper editor and through the last 14 years as a classroom teacher.
A place in my heart will always be reserved for Barbara McNeely...but I would give anything to hear her voice one more time.
(The poem below was written by Barbara McNeely as a high school junior)