A Stolen Poem

North Carolina writer Kathleen Purvis remembers the time another girl in her class stole her writing and passed it off as her own. The incident hurt her — but it also taught her lessons that shaped the rest of her life.

Typing the word “poem” isn’t supposed to make my stomach hurt.

It isn’t supposed to make my heart beat faster. It isn’t supposed to make my palms itchy.

This shouldn’t be, should it? I have practical experience with crafting words. I’m a professional writer, meaning I actually do get paid to write, and I do it well enough that I’ve been paid steadily for most of the last 40 years.

People think writing isn’t physical work, not like ditch digger or diner waitress or supermarket cashier. But the people who think that are usually people who don’t write.

Writing is physical. Writing can make your heart beat faster, in a bad way when you’re facing a deadline, in a good way when you’re facing a deadline but you know you have a good story to tell. It can put you in a groove that grips you so hard you have to push your heels into the floor to keep the muse from galloping off with you.

When the writing is going well for me, when I’m writing something I know is good and true — that kind of writing makes me feel like I’m vibrating, like there’s a guitar string running from the middle of my ribs down to my diaphragm.

As a person who writes for a living, I don’t get that feeling every day, on every paragraph. Not anymore. But I’ve felt that vibration enough times to know it and welcome it, and to honor the blank, washed-clean feeling that comes after it, too.

I know precisely the moment when I first felt that, when I felt something alien grab my pencil and direct the words, words that seemed to flow straight out of the pencil point onto paper. Words that I knew were good, and true.

I know precisely the moment when I first felt ... something alien grab my pencil and direct the words, words that seemed to flow straight out of the pencil point onto paper. Words that I knew were good, and true. That was the moment I wrote the first and only real poem I’ve ever written.

That was the moment I wrote the first and only real poem I’ve ever written.

I can’t tell you what that poem said, because minutes later, the poem was stolen.

When I think “poetry,” what I feel isn’t joy. It’s loss. It’s shame. And it’s anger. A lot of anger. Poetry was the first time I was a crime victim. And after 50 years, it still feels, well, to put the right word on it, I’d say it feels shitty.


I was raised in eastern North Carolina on the cusp of the New South, in the years when reading “Gone With the Wind” was still a rite of passage with nothing more than nostalgia attached. I left that place long ago and lived my life through the years when “woke” arrived with restrictions attached, restrictions on who can use it, how and when. I lived through the years when having friends who were Black got me tackled and beaten in high school, and into the years when wrestling with race and privilege feels like walking through a field of trip wires, desperate to do it right, desperate to not make it more wrong than it has always been.

The first half of my childhood wasn’t like that, though. Wilson, North Carolina, in the mid-1960s was a postcard kind of town, with a stately pillared courthouse, a big rec center and a town pool close enough to the suburbs to reach by bike. All of that was if you were white, of course: There were no Black children playing at that rec center or swimming in that pool. They lived in a part of town that was always called “colored.” I knew about the separation, but that doesn’t mean I understood it.

I remember “colored only” signs on water fountains and at the end of lunch counters, and knew it was wrong as soon as I could read them. I had my mouth washed out with soap in the first grade when I couldn’t remember the correct word my mother had told me to use (the one with one G) and the “bad” one I had been told to never use (the one with two Gs). The two words were close enough to be confusing, but the dinner table turned out to be a dangerous place to make a wild guess. My punishment for getting it wrong was an aperitif of Cashmere Bouquet on my way to bed without finishing supper.

Mostly, though, I lived through those years absorbing complicated messages in the simplest possible ways. When my school desegregated in the fourth grade, my parents talked to me about it by just saying, “We expect you to treat all people the same, no matter the color of their skin.”

Simple enough. To me, that meant that when Juanita, one of three Black students assigned to our class, was given the seat right next to mine, we could make friends by playing with each other’s hair whenever the teacher wasn’t looking. I had never had the chance to look closely at cornrow braiding, while Juanita had never spent time touching hair that was blonde. We regularly bent our heads over to take turns.

I wasn’t traumatized by any of that. The lack of trauma was so great that for years, I barely even remembered a playground moment apparently so ground-shaking that friends from that time, encountered later on Facebook, brought it up immediately. It took a while, but the details eventually came back to me.

People who remember refer to it as the jump-rope incident. For girls in elementary school, jump rope was the social event of the day, the thing we raced to set up when we were given free time outside. As a tall kid, I always got the job of turning one end of the long rope. A pushy, very large girl named Loretta always took the other end.

Girls lined up, for double Dutch and hot pepper and all the jump-rope games that relied on songs. One day soon after the start of school, Juanita lined up with everyone else. But when her turn came, Loretta threw down her end of the rope, crossed her arms and refused to turn the rope for a Black girl.

At the other end of the rope, I didn’t know what to do. Loretta and I were the only ones tall enough to turn the rope for everyone else. So, I did the most logical thing: I dropped my end of the long rope and called to Juanita to go with me to the single jump ropes piled in a heap on the side of the playground.

She joined me, we jumped rope side by side, and a few minutes later, all the other girls had come over to take turns, leaving Loretta standing by the abandoned long jump rope with no one to turn it for.

A couple of days before the Christmas holiday, the English teacher announced a homework assignment: Write a Christmas poem and turn it in the next day. To keep us out of her hair in the 30 minutes before the end of school, we could start … now.

As insurrections go, it wasn’t exactly Attica. Just girls working it out. When Loretta announced the next day that her parents didn’t want her to play with me anymore, I don’t remember doing anything other than shrug and feel relief: Loretta was a bully.

Wilson was that kind of town, where the ugly realities of race and hate could be swept under the furniture, known but rarely acknowledged by polite white people. When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed, the town was put under a curfew, especially cruel in summer when we lived on bikes and never rode home until the long, lingering dusk. I was sitting in someone’s yard well before dark when a patrol car rolled by and a policeman called out, “Y’all kids need to go inside now.”

That was about as traumatic as Wilson got.


In November 1968, not long after the jump-rope incident, my family left eastern North Carolina for a small city in Florida, where my father had a chance at a promotion. The upheaval was total: Instead of a tract house in a suburb surrounded by dozens of kids, we rented a 1920s house on the edge of downtown Ocala, about as far from the life I had known as Tang is from an orange tree. The move had shaken up trouble in my parents’ always-tense relationship, my older sister had stayed behind at her North Carolina university, and my brother was focused on high school. I was 9 years old, mostly left to figure things out on my own.

The elementary school a few blocks away was big and almost as old as our house. Being downtown, it was more diverse than my suburban school back in Wilson. Black kids weren’t bused in — most of them lived in the blocks around the school. Whatever unrest had come with mixing the populations had happened before I got there.

We got to the new town just after Thanksgiving, so the brief time before the Christmas break wasn’t enough for any teacher to get to know me beyond a new name penciled in the roll book.

I didn’t know every girl on the playground. Actually, I didn’t know any of them. Mostly, I did what new kids usually do: I kept my head down, my nose in a book, and my place in whatever line I was told to stand in.

A couple of days before the Christmas holiday, the English teacher announced a homework assignment: Write a Christmas poem and turn it in the next day. To keep us out of her hair in the 30 minutes before the end of school, we could start … now.

We got out paper and pencils and put our heads down to work. And that’s when it happened.

The first line of a poem jumped into my head. Where it came from, I don’t know. I just knew that I had to write it down. And the next line. And the next. It sprang from my head fully formed, demanding that I get the words down fast enough.

It wasn’t a child’s poem. It had rhythm, but it didn’t rhyme. It was about Christmas, but had nothing about guys in red suits climbing down chimneys.

What did it have? I’m not sure. I only got to read it once, when I wrote it. But I knew it was good.

I finished before the bell rang and sat back, dazed and a little breathless, with a sense of wonder at what I had done. Then I heard a whisper from a girl behind me.

“Hey! Did you finish your poem?” I nodded, too dazed to put a word to my experience.

“Can I read it?”

The writing coach Jack Hart, once a respected editor at the Portland Oregonian, used to say that all writers are like golden retrievers, pacing back and forth with our writing in our mouths, wagging our tails and begging, “Did you read it yet? Did you read it yet? Did you read it yet?”

Yes, please — read my poem. Be my witness. Tell me that what you see on the page is what I think just happened to me.

She took my poem and started to read. And that’s when the bell rang.

She jumped up and headed for the door. I called, trying to get her attention. I grabbed my things and ran into the hall, where I spotted her dodging through the crowd, heading for the outside door, breaking for daylight.

She’s just distracted, I told myself. She’s so eager to get out of school, she forgot she had my poem in her hand. She’ll give it back tomorrow.

I went home, not too worried about what had happened. Or wasn’t I? That night, I tried my hand at another poem. It rhymed. It had guys in red suits and chimneys. It was nothing special. But I took it to school, just in case.

On the playground the next morning, I searched for her. She wasn’t in the dodgeball group, or the hand-clapping group or the group that always gathered in the warm spot near the cafeteria exhaust vents.

I went to class. She wasn’t there. I watched until the last minute, finally adding my inferior poem, the one with no magic, to the pile on the teacher’s desk.

Then, just before the door closed, she slipped into the room, tossed a sheet of paper on the pile and took her seat. I tried to catch her eye, tried to whisper, but she didn’t seem to be listening.

Just before the end of class, the teacher made an announcement. She was holding a piece of paper and practically vibrating. She had, she announced, the best student poem she had ever read. Before we left for the holiday, she wanted the writer to come up and read it.

Then she called the other girl’s name.

She walked to the front of the room and read my poem. From where I sat, I could see it had been rewritten in her own hand.

What did I do? The only thing I could do: Nothing. The poem in my handwriting was gone, probably thrown away. The teacher hadn’t known me long enough to know that I had always had a knack for reading and writing. She didn’t know me well enough to recognize my writing voice.

But there was a bigger reason I knew I couldn’t tell. The girl was Black.

In the South I had been raised in, people who treated Black people badly were bad people. Even in that moment of shock and grief, I knew that if I accused her of a crime, I would be a bad person myself. Just another hateful white person who assumed that if I called a Black girl a liar or a thief, I would be believed.

So, I swallowed it. I swallowed it whole, and never told a soul. It was the only way to go on: Accept the loss. I didn’t know then that I would never write another poem, that I was damming that river permanently. But I did know that I could continue to believe myself to be a good person.

In my life, I have experienced wage discrimination and age discrimination, beauty bias and fat shaming, sexual assault and gaslighting. I’ve made my way as a college dropout in an educated field, and stood my ground against assumptions and flippant dismissals. I’ve tried to do the long, arduous and heavy emotional labor of discerning and subverting my privilege. I don’t think I trust the Black people in my life any more or less than I trust the white ones.

From time to time, through all that, I’ve wondered about the girl. I don’t remember any more interaction with her that year, and my family moved again that summer. I don’t know how her life turned out — if the poem she read that day raised teachers’ expectations of her, if she got more or less attention after that, if the teacher ever wondered why one piece of her work was different.

Was her act just convenience and thoughtlessness? Did she ever think about the value of what she had taken, or was I just a stand-in for all the white people who would end up taking from her? Did I fill a need in her life that went deeper than a simple homework assignment?

I hope so. I hope I let her do something that made up, even a little, for a life I can never know.

There’s another question, of course, that I have wondered as well. If she had been white instead of Black, would my split-second decision have been the same? Would I have felt safe enough to make my accusation, to tell the teacher what had been done to me?

I might not have. I had already learned that telling on another child to an adult wasn’t likely to bring me satisfaction. I was already absorbing the messages given to girls — be good, don’t cause trouble, keep the world’s violations to yourself. Girls are told in so many ways: Nobody wants to hear that.

But when I dig deep down into what it all means to this day, I find myself right back in that moment in the fourth grade — on my own, trying to figure it out and feeling inadequate to the task.

I still feel the loss. And the shame. And the anger.

After all these years, I wish I had a more poetic way to say it feels shitty.


1 thought on “A Stolen Poem”

  1. I read this and instantly was transported to the 3rd grade, 1953 in Glasgow KY. We had just finished a spelling test and the teacher was walking down the aisles picking up papers. I had my paper on top of the desk ready for her to pick up. I was so anxious about a particular word that I thought I had misspelled that I pulled out my study sheet from the open space under my desk just to see if I had spelled it right. I would never have tried to change it. BUT, the boy sitting next to me, my nemesis, saw what I was doing and yelled out “Beverly is cheating!”. Of course, the teacher snatched the paper out of my hand and announced to the class that I would be getting a ZERO for the test and that the everyone needed to remember my terrible act and the consequences. Some children seem to be born with a sense of self-assuredness and power; but, many children are not. The boy who tattled on me that day was the same boy who enlisted another bully to chase me on the playground every day and yell “pop-eye” because I had a very pronounced “lazy eye” and had to wear thick ugly glasses. That boy has grown up to be a much respected television personality in KY and I’m sure he doesn’t remember this incident. But I never see him without a fleeting blip in my stomach. It only lasts a second and I am no longer that fragile little girl, but I still have to make myself push that sick feeling away. I grew up to be a social worker and spent most of my career working to make the world better for fragile children.

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