Tales from the Before Time: Classroom Issues

For a long time, I was — to put it mildly — skeptical about the value of classroom writing instruction, if by “skeptical” we mean “unconvinced of its utility and halfway convinced that its influence is largely malign.”

I blame early-writing-life trauma.

Picture me, in the eighth grade, bookish and awkward and laboring under the further social burden of being a new kid in the sort of town where everybody has gone to school together since first grade.  I wanted desperately to be — well, not popular, because popularity looked like it came with more strings and preconditions than I felt like dealing with, but ordinary.

At the same time, I was already a beginning writer, turning out lachrymose poetry and lumpy prose and working hard at my efforts to improve both (harder, in fact, than I ever worked at any of the  “draw one line under the subject of this sentence and two lines under the verb” exercises in our English textbook .)  And I was as hungry for outside validation as any writer, beginner or established pro.

Unsurprisingly, there came a day when I had a finished story in hand and wanted somebody else’s opinion on it.  (Needless to say, the story sucked.   I was, after all, only in the eighth grade.)  So I screwed up my courage to the sticking-point and showed the story to my eighth-grade English teacher, hoping to at least get some useful commentary out of the deal.

This was a big mistake, because she liked it.

She liked it so damned much she read it out loud to all her English classes.  Which put paid to any hopes I might have had of appearing ordinary, and got me out of the habit of trusting English teachers about anything.

4 thoughts on “Tales from the Before Time: Classroom Issues

  1. Oh no! External validation and support. How terrible.

    Fortunately I have never suffered that sort of trauma. Just me, a chunky sweater and my whiskey bottle like writing should be.

  2. Having also been the bookish and awkward type, I second the motion. Despite my conceiving the notion of becoming a writer at about the same time I learned to read at age 4, as a child and adolescent I detested school writing assignments. Couldn’t see the point of ’em. I suppose it was because I hadn’t lived long enough to have any ideas of my own. But somehow I’d manage to cobble together some platitudinous prose with sufficient grammatical accuracy (I did enjoy the English textbook exercises) to merit the mercifully private praise of teachers who seemed to be impressed puzzlingly out of proportion to the value of what I’d produced. (I garnered good marks, and that was all that mattered.)

  3. That happened to me once, with a Star Wars-themed powerpoint presentation on the element silicon, complete with dialogue, conflict, story art, and music clips. Science teacher loved it so much he made me present it to every class, forever cementing my reputation in high school as “that weird girl we probably shouldn’t talk to.”

    Except, of course, for the kids who actually liked that sort of thing, in which case I found myself some true friends.

    That’s the thing with writing, though. Some people don’t get it and never will, so I’ve learned to keep that side of me hidden until I find people who will appreciate it. Not always easy, but that side is also easily bruised. When you’re young, you haven’t learned that yet and expect everyone to be as excited about it as you. Another of life’s lessons (how strange actually learn it at school): not everyone likes what you like.

    1. And the teachers always mean so well by it, too . . . it’s kind of depressing, really, how many of them seem to have forgotten the “nature red in tooth and claw” nature of adolescent society.

      There have been times in my life when no matter how bad everything was, I was at least able to console myself with the thought that nobody was going to make me be thirteen years old ever again.

      Obligatory writing reference: The really good middle-grade and YA writers, I think, are the ones for whom hysterical amnesia about those years has not mercifully set in. They remember that time in all its awful clarity, and their readers recognize the pain.

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