My mom, a journalist, was talking with a friend. She beamed at my brother. “Charlie, he’s the writer of the family. And Annie? She’s…” Here, I felt my mom hesitate. Then, “Annie’s the athlete.”
My brother excelled in everything involving words—from composing song lyrics and essays to dominating Scrabble games and inserting witty comments into conversations at just the right moment. I played softball and ran track. And I rode my yellow Schwinn ten-speed down country roads stretching between corn and soybean fields, past herds of Black Angus cattle and silos filled with grain. The labels fit, though deep down, secretly, I wanted to be a writer, too.
Three years after Charlie graduated high school, I sat in Miss Thompson’s Senior English class. Miss Thompson told us we would keep a journal chronicling our senior year, creating at least five entries per week. We were to do more than write, however. We were to add our personal touch. Whether we complemented our written words with pasted-in photographs, news clippings and ticket stubs or accented them with watercolor backgrounds and meticulous calligraphy, the key to A-level work was creative expression.
She held up three examples of some of the best she’d ever seen—journals from past students whose work she adored. One was Charlie’s. I recognized it immediately, having gazed at it many times while he worked on it during his senior year. She passed them around for students to flip through. When Charlie’s came to me, I opened it, noting his handwriting—a combination of big printed letters and rounded cursive. The content mingled light humor and occasional sarcasm with spot-on descriptions of people and situations. For one page, he cut letters from newspapers to compose an amusing ransom note. I studied the pages, wishing I could copy his techniques. Then I passed it to the person behind me.
At the end of my senior year, Miss Thompson didn’t ask to keep my journal.
I ran track in spring that year, as I had since junior high, training for sprints and the long jump, reinforcing my status as the family athlete. After graduation, I worked during the summer as a copy person, running errands for editors at the newspaper where my dad worked.
I hated working in the city. I hated working into the night. I hated the sense of urgency and stress necessary to put out a daily paper. One time I had to drive the company car to fetch a photograph from a family whose son had been shot. I knocked on the door. They barely opened it. I introduced myself and said I was from the newspaper. They reached through the narrow opening and handed me his picture. I told them we would return it and flipped it around to be sure their address was printed on the back. It was. I don’t think they said one word. I said I was very sorry and thanked them for the photo. They nodded and shut the door. I hated invading their grief.
That fall, I started school at a Big Ten University. Not nearly good enough to compete on their elite sports teams, I lost my label. No more was I an athlete, though I did pedal my yellow Schwinn ten-speed across campus, weaving around students who were walking to class.
A couple of weeks into my freshman year, I showed up at a tall building where bored grad students served as advisors, looking over undergrad schedules to ensure that our class selections met each major’s requirements. We lined up single-file down a long hallway, waiting our turn. My randomly assigned college advisor asked about my major. Since I had no idea what to study, my mom and dad suggested journalism. I didn’t have any other ideas, so I’d been claiming to be a journalism major on all my school documents and blurted it out to the advisor. He wrote it down, scribbled on some paperwork, approved my class load, and sent me on my way.
He didn’t question my choices, so I was allowed to follow my brother’s suggestion to sign up for a 200-level survey of Shakespeare course the first semester of my freshman year. Charlie loved the class, especially the professor, Dr. Weber, and even though I was taking a sophomore-level class as a freshman, he assured me I’d be fine. My brother didn’t know that I’d only barely made sense of Macbeth in Miss Thompson’s high school English class. Charlie breezed through it.
In this Shakespeare course with Professor Weber, I would be reading several of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets. The Internet didn’t exist to see what others had to say about the works, and Kenneth Branagh’s Henry V wouldn’t release in theaters for four more years. I would be on my own to sort it all out.
The professor read off each name to take attendance. We were simply to answer “present.” The long process of hearing name after name, “present” after “present, ” lulled the room to a restful state until he said in his crisp, faux-British accent, “Miss…Hopper.”
“Present, ” I responded.
He pulled off his reading glasses, looked up at the room and squinted, trying to decide where among the 200 students in this lecture hall my voice originated. “Miss Hopper?”
I straightened up. “Yes?”
“Miss Hopper…are you by any chance related to Charlie Hopper?” Dr. Weber must have taught thousands of students over the years. I was four years younger than my brother who had already graduated. The entire lecture hall stared at me, surprised at this exchange interrupting the otherwise soporific administrative procedure. Turning crimson, I longed to dissolve into liquid form and slide down the steps unnoticed, but I remained solidly human and the professor waited for an answer, grinning, eager to hear my response.
I cleared my throat. “Yes, he’s my brother.”
“I thought so. Well, should we expect the same insightful observations?”
I swallowed. After a nervous laugh, I tried to manage the professor’s expectations. “Well, I’m not much like my brother.”
“I’m delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Hopper. I look forward to your participation in class.”
I started reading Shakespeare, but it sounded foreign. At the library, I checked out a fuzzy audio recording of each play in case hearing it read aloud would help me comprehend. It didn’t. I showed up to class confused. He called on me.
“Miss Hopper? What did you think of this passage?” I offered dismal, childish ideas—or nothing at all. Week after week, he kept assigning passages and I kept limping through the original language while slumped at the library or leaning over my dorm room desk. I rode my bike across campus, slipped into the lecture hall and sank into my chair hoping he’d forget about Charlie Hopper’s sister.
I scribbled copious notes and appreciated Dr. Weber’s lectures, but in almost every class he would ask for a response. I never offered anything original In fact, I usually offered nothing at all—certainly no insightful observations.
One day he pressed me. “What’s your opinion of this passage, Miss Hopper?”
“I…I’m sorry, but I don’t have an opinion.”
“You have no opinion at all?”
“No, sir.” I fiddled with my pen. Everyone was staring.
“You have no opinion, or you didn’t read it?”
I sat stunned. Mortified. He didn’t think I did the work, but that week I’d sat in a big leather chair in the student union, my eyes taking in every word, re-reading the section, underlining what might be important, but unable to piece together its power, its subtle insight into human nature, its themes and genius. In the lecture hall that day, I thought, I may not understand it, but I did read the passage, so I exclaimed defensively, “No, I read it!” Then I realized I couldn’t offer proof. Defeated, I mumbled, “I…I just don’t…have…an opinion.”
Normally an animated, engaging professor, Dr. Weber fell silent a moment, his neck muscles tightening. “How can you have no opinion if you’ve actually read it? If you read it, you should have something to say about it.”
But I didn’t. I didn’t understand the passage. I didn’t have anything to say. My brother was the writer. My brother was the reader-critic. My brother probably skipped the reading assignments and still made appropriate, witty, delightful comments. Dr. Weber kept expecting Charlie, but kept getting Annie.
Ashamed and stupid, I felt tears slide down each side of my nose. I couldn’t wipe them away without drawing even more attention. “I read it, ” I repeated softly, “but I have nothing to say about the passage.” I looked down, now, away from Dr. Weber and the eyes of hundreds of classmates. I knew no one by name, but they all knew me: Charlie Hopper’s sister, the girl with nothing to say.
I stared at the lined pages of my spiral-bound notebook, where I had been taking notes on Dr. Weber’s lecture. A tear formed a perfect circle on the page where it dropped and was soaking through, warping my handwriting.