Now and then I think about why it’s only now, in late middle age, that I am doing the writing I wanted to do as a young man. I wrote as a teenager. I wrote a lot. I had the courage then to write badly. And it was bad. Melancholic. Formulaic. Derivative. Idealistic. Clichéd. I believe I had the sense that I’d be able to get better if I kept at it. I was in love with the building of worlds and the plight of heroes.
I even experimented with eroticism—something of a leap for a 15-year old virgin. My mother once stumbled on one of these stories, as I recall. Beats me how she found it. I never left such things lying around. Perhaps she was a fan and went searching. I do not remember the consequences, though it was nothing harsh and did not involve corrected grammar.
I always looked forward to the composition assignments in English class. This was my kind of homework. What cheesy sci-fi thriller can I produce today…? Memory is not dependable. But it’s all I’ve got. I know it was in high school. I’m going to guess grade ten. I can’t remember the teacher’s name. She was short, feisty and attractive and dating one of the math teachers. In fact, I think they married one summer because she was sporting his last name the following September. I had her for Latin in grade nine—a disaster in itself. All the other guys were in shop class or learning how to change spark plugs, and I was trying to conjugate ancient verbs. This was my father steering me to medicine or law. It didn’t last.
Back in the English class we received a composition assignment. I don’t remember the nature of it or what I wrote. But as she prepared to hand them back, I vividly remember that teacher standing among the desks and reading from my story. Just mine. She didn’t say who’d written it. But that was her only mercy. She read with nothing short of derision. She got a lot of laughs, not for the humour of my writing but for its astonishingly poor quality. I remember hearing the first few words and suddenly realizing that they were mine.
It just struck me now that I knew only then how bad my prose was. It was not a pretty mirror I stared into. I recall trying to keep from revealing myself as the author as she read, trying to shrink into the obscurity I was bound to find if I kept on writing like that. I couldn’t very well laugh along with my classmates. That sort of performance was beyond me. Nor could I find it in myself to snatch the writing from her hand and barge from the room. Eventually, I think I imagined doing that. Trying to find solace in replaying the humiliation. I’d been a fan of that teacher to that point. I wanted to please her. I guess I’d failed her; she was failing me in response.
I didn’t take it well. When I look back on it now what she did strikes me as particularly miserable, cruel and unprofessional. If her intent was to harden one of her students, why wasn’t it a regular part of her routine? I never saw her do such a thing to anyone else. Nor did she ever say anything to me privately. If I’d been a troublemaker, I could understand the rebuke. But I was a numbingly average student.
What a missed opportunity. She could have taken me aside and found a way to encourage my writing. Nudged me a few steps in the right direction with some careful criticism balanced with a pat on the back for my enthusiasm. She could have said, “Look, if you want to write, here’s what you need to do to get better.” There was nothing remotely constructive about her response. And it’s the personal nature of it that’s always puzzled me. What button did I push?
I imagine such appalling examples of teaching failure are likely offset by just as many uplifting ones, but malice remains hard to forgive. From this distance, anyway.
I have never written about this before because I have always been unsure about the impact of that incident. And I don’t want to make too much of it. At the time, my immediate response was to stop writing, not out of spite but because I thought she was right.
Now, perhaps it’s a cautionary tale. To students who think they’re walking in my shoes, stand up for yourself. Try to shove ego aside and ask for constructive feedback. Make it clear that you know you need to get better at whatever it is you do—and that you’re willing to put in the effort to make it happen.
In college, I wrote scripts for a couple of TV dramas. They were embarrassingly bad too, but I was still clinging to the belief that practice would pay off. Maybe I was trying to ring up Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 hours.
After graduation, I did a bit of writing for Trans-FM magazine. Not much after that. No, that’s not true. I didn’t finish much after that. The unfinished works include The Magic Suit, a film script in which the central character is another one of those misunderstood young men trying to find the rudder in his world. The Magic Suit contains a scene that probably paints my English teacher more favourably than she deserves. I still have that script. And here’s the scene from circa 1983:
- INT. BUS AFTERNOON (PRESENT) 14.
ANGLE ON Andrew, who leans against the window, rocking
slowly with the motion of the bus. The shadows and reflections
of passing objects brush him gently as he makes his way
downtown. His memory is stirred.
Are you a ‘good’ person?
- INT. HIGH SCHOOL CLASSROOM AFTERNOON (FLASHBACK) 15.
Andrew’s high-school literature class. It’s a crowded room.
The TEACHER paces back and forth slowly across the front,
a copy of some textbook cradled in her arm. She looks out
on the mass of uninterested youth.
Do you ever think about that?
Still no response. She continues to pace.
Do you feel that you are essentially good or bad?
Andrew watches STEPHEN yank himself from a late afternoon
You’re just asking me because you
figure I’m bad.
You certainly work at giving me that
impression, don’t you?
A few chuckles arise from the class. Stephen is now under
pressure. He glances about. The faces are anxious for a
response. As the resident bully, he has a reputation to uphold.
Well maybe I want to be good but I
know that I’m basically bad.
Conflict. That’s good.
She paces again, looking for another culprit.
He clears his throat.
The bell sounds to end the class. Half the group leaps
immediately to its feet, heading for the door, but the teacher’s
hands go into the air.
Whoa, whoa, everybody! Back in your
Amidst moans and groans, the students take their chairs,
perched half off. The teacher again looks to Andrew.
You feel you are a good man.
I think I have the potential to be a
He’s got to finish being a good boy first.
The class erupts in laughter. Andrew levels a stony gaze on his
nemesis, who basks in the audience response. The class empties.
As Andrew rises to join them, the teacher motions discreetly
for him to remain. He slumps back into his chair. She closes the
door quietly after the last of them and walks back to sit on the
edge of her desk.
I’ve been teaching English for almost
twenty years, and I have yet to come
across what anyone might call a
Andrew shifts in his seat.
Maybe your standards are too high.
She fingers a stack of papers next to her.
Perhaps. It’s always seemed beyond
my ability to make you people appreciate
the value of literature. And then every
time I have to stand up and say “Time for
another composition, boys and girls,” and
you all groan, I know it’s time to get my
waders on again because you lot are going
to swamp me with crap like this.
She lifts the top paper from the pile and waves it at him.
Andrew becomes even more uncomfortable. From the corner
of his eye he spots Stephen in the door’s tiny window, his
face contorted into what at any other time would be amusing
positions. The teacher follows Andrew’s gaze and in an
alarmingly clean motion she flings a piece of chalk that
shatters against the glass. The face disappears. Andrew is
impressed. She returns his smile briefly before again
regarding the paper.
You must find it awkward being a
She slips off her perch and approaches him.
A Romantic. Capital ‘R’. Byron,
Don’t be smart.
As a literary movement it’s been
dead for almost a century.
She drops the paper on the desk in front of him. Andrew
is afraid to touch it.
Dead. This reeks of it.
Nobody buys this crap anymore,
She turns and heads for the window to raise the blinds.
I make it a point to watch an evening’s
television the night before these papers
are due. That way I’m assured of a
complete preview of the stories I can
expect to see the next day. And I’ll tell
you something: television has a very
poor grasp of Romanticism.
She looks back over her shoulder.
Aren’t you going to check it?
She smiles, heading back for her desk.
Do you want to write?
I didn’t think so. That’s why I gave
you an ‘A’.
Andrew looks mildly shocked. He reaches for the paper and
flips to the last page. Sure enough.
If you can hack it out there with that
stuff in your head, you deserve one.
Andrew looks up to her.
Go on. Get out of here.
Merry Christmas 2019, by the way.