People Who Knew You When…

Yesterday, while leafing through my new May issue of the Atlantic (which I found worryingly slender) I spotted an unusual letter to the editor in response to Sandra Tsing Loh’s altogether entertaining essay “Sympathy for the Tiger Moms.”

Mike Shatz of Brookline, MA writes, “I do have a perspective on Ms. Loh’s writing that I suspect few of your readers share, since I first encountered it in grading her homework and exam papers when she was taking sophomore physics. It has improved tremendously since then. Surely that is in part because of her practice of her craft. But I have no doubt that much of the improvement comes from writing about what interests her rather than trying to please her father.”

I thought this letter was interesting even for those who have not been following (or could care less about) the tiger parent brouhaha. Although most writers I know write for themselves, or an interested but unspecific reader, it’s also true—and fun to imagine—that an authors’ work may well end up in the hands of her high school physics teacher, or any of a host of the people “who knew you when…”

So in light of Miriam’s recent post about the importance of teaching writing, my own suspicion that my posts are a far cry from the well-ordered essays my sophomore-year English teacher taught me to construct, and the humbling gaffe I made using “stationary” for “stationery” last week, I’d like to solicit tales of teachers. I’d love to hear about your early writing mentors—people who encouraged your love of words—or alternately, teachers who might be surprised, even shocked, to note that you are a now a writer. No need to use whole names here, indeed, probably best if you don’t.

7 Responses to People Who Knew You When…

  1. Ciara says:

    I had an English teacher who gave a creative writing assignment, the only rule was that we had to include 5 words that she had picked and I told a story about dragons.

    When I got it back it had an F on it and she told me that dragons were not a suitable topic and that I would fail English. In the end I scored 598 points out of 600 on my leaving cert English paper and I’m writing my first novel.

    If I ever get published I’d love to send her a copy with a picture of me sticking my tongue out inside. Of course that would be childish and I’d never give her the satisfaction of letting her know who much she bothered me.

  2. Kim says:

    My fourth grade writing teacher gave my book report of the book, “Skip, A Dog” an A+. She handed me the paper with a skeptical look and the comment, “Did you write this?” At the time I was appalled that she’d think that someone else did my homework, but now I view the comment as lavish praise indeed. It’s too bad that she didn’t hold onto the paper because I’m sure that someday it will be worth a whole, whole lot of money.

  3. I had a high school English teacher, Mr. D, who let me read my poems to the class. My poems were often comical, rhyming just to rhyme, and full of inappropriate, often suggestive, phrases. Nonetheless, now I am a writer and an English teacher… and I let my students read their poetry aloud.

  4. Donna Hole says:

    My sophomore english teacher was read my first ever novel – novella, actually – and encouraged me to keep writing. He submitted it to a schoolastic writing contest, and even though it wasn’t accepted, I sure appreciated the effort.


  5. Freshman year of high school, my best friend and I gleefully registered for yearbook, and showed up eager and smiling that first day, fourth period, ready to roll. Except we were told there had been a mistake, we were ninth graders, and enrollment was limited to sophomores. Tough luck, but we’ll work it out tomorrow, and in the meantime go ahead and do the writing assignment I’m giving the rest of the class.

    The next day, fourth period, we showed up again since we hadn’t been told otherwise, and Ms. Woodroffe started off with reading a piece of copy one of the kids in the class had written. It was mine. We got to stay, and yearbook became the foundation and salvation of my high school existence.

    I’d been writing this and that for years, but that was one of the best public declarations that I was indeed a writer. Didn’t hurt that even the cute seniors were impressed.

    Teachers matter.

  6. My Grade 12 English teacher single-handedly saved me from loathing poetry for the rest of my life. I’d been completely turned off in earlier classes by a teacher who asked me to give “my interpretation” of a poem… and then told me I was wrong.

    Mr. C. allowed us to read his poetry (an act of true courage), and encouraged us to write it ourselves. He made poetry accessible and enjoyable – no mean feat when faced with a classroom full of teenagers. Nearly thirty years later, I still have the dog-eared Duotang notebook containing my Grade 12 poetry project.

  7. I had a “did you write this?” experience in junior high as well. I had a hard time defending myself, because I couldn’t tell the truth – we had been given a whole semester to produce a collection of writings – 5 points for each haiku, 10 points for a short story, etc. to total 100 points. So of course, I waited until the day before to start writing anything – I was slinging those pieces out like hamburgers – 5 haiku, done! 2 short stories, order up! And I remember sometime very late at night, I started writing this humongous poem about it raining all over the world – my parents had a collection of Time-Life Books, about countries, so I pulled those down to get names of cities, which the rain was gurgling down the drains of – and of course I picked the most obscure city names I could find, the ones with the most syllables, etc – so this of course is the poem my teacher thought I plagiarized. Yes, “plagiarized.” She even had my mom come up to the school – my mom asked me, “Are you SURE you didn’t read it somewhere?” etc…what was I to say: “I’m sure, I wrote the whole thing the night before!”

    Anyway, I go on at such length because my mother was very very harsh, terribly, terribly…well, there was one thing a little cloud of safety surrounded, and that was my writing…when I kept insisting I had written it myself, I saw a little smile on my (three-times-a-college-dropout) mother’s face…she was proud of her daughter, throwing the jr. high english teacher for a loop. It would have been great to know about my mother’s educational struggles before I was in my 20s – maybe I wouldn’t have dropped out three times myself. If I calculate correctly, that means between my mom and me, we had to enroll six times, 7 times, to get one MFA between us, a few collections of poetry, and a novel. Practice makes perfect! So thanks to the “Doubting Thomasina” of my jr. high days – for putting a little smile on my mother’s face. I think now of the Mona Lisa’s “elusive” smile – maybe that’s actually a “mother’s pride in her daughter’s intellectual accomplishments” smile, quite rare, quite elusive, to this day, for a whole lot of women (men, people), all over the world.

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