Thursday, February 4, 2010

One-upping Mr. Nelson

Last week I was invited to a middle-school classroom to talk about being a writer. It was one of those moments that made me go “huh?” and look over my shoulder for the real grown-up/real writer who was surely standing behind me. “Oh, you mean me?” said my inner ego, who is nerdy, shy and still only 12 herself. She violently fears a room full of eyes on her, not to mention that she hasn’t a single thing to say.

But once I got there, perched on a red cane chair in front of twenty 7th and 8th graders, I surprised myself. I talked about writing, and kind of couldn’t shut up. I think my allotted time was ten minutes, and when I finally came to a sort of conclusion, thirty minutes had passed. The students were totally engaged, asking questions. One kid even tape recorded me. I can only hope that I was more entertaining and inspiring than the lawyer who’d launched this career series for them earlier in the week.

The kick of it was that it was really cool to talk about how I got here, and remind myself where “here” is. I worked my ass off, and it kind of even worked! It reminded me that talking about what you love is easy. I love talking about what I love. And I love writing. I even told them—with pride—that when I was a kid I used to spend every recess in the library. Even though at the time it made me a complete outcast, I see now that it was a crucial step in my developing identity. So there, Bangor Elementary.

But it wasn’t all about me. I told those kids they can be writers. All it takes is doing it, and doing it, and doing some more. Voila! You’re a writer. Unlike some things, like pro ball, which I could have done until I was brain damaged and still never excelled. I told them they didn’t even need to wait— starting today, they could be a writer. One kid said, “So I could submit an essay to a magazine right now?” I said, “You go for it. No one is going to ask how old you are. Just do it.”

Which got me thinking about Mr. Nelson. He was my 11th grade English teacher. He was a curmudgeonly sort who delivered fill-in-the-blank tests with questions like “How thick was the rope in The Old Man and the Sea?” He barely spoke a word to me all year long. Then on the last day of school, offhand, without smiling or even looking me in the eye, he said, “You’re the best writer in the junior class.” I was so stunned I just stood there like the dead fish in The Old Man and the Sea (was there a dead fish in The Old Man and the Sea? I don’t really remember. Surely there was. I am sure at one point I had to answer a test question about how long it was, and its species).

I’ve thought about that moment a lot, especially given that it took me another decade to decide to try to become a writer. Mr. Nelson, why not mention that little tasty tidbit of teacherly opinion a tiny bit earlier in the year? Why not encourage me? Why not point me in a direction that I totally wanted to go but hadn’t embraced yet? Why not be a mentor instead of just the giver of ridiculous tests?

That’s what I wanted to do for those kids. What I wish someone would have done for me. Why not? There’s always room for more of us.

I know, this is a long post. I told you I couldn’t shut up.


  1. Lovely post. I don't think I should talk about my advertising career. We don't need more little cynics...

  2. Melissa--Oh, I don't know. I suspect that cynicism is a lot more profitable than this gushy arty hope stuff I'm selling. Somebody's got to make the bucks. ;-)