Thursday, August 22, 2013

Throwback Thursday: The Day I Caught the Bug

Students at my high school took four full years of English. As freshman we enrolled in the mandatory "9th Grade English" class, but after that first year the administration allowed us to choose the English courses we found most interesting. Now, many (16? Wow, I'm getting old) years later, I only remember half of the courses in which I enrolled: a semester in "Bible", a semester in "Creative Writing", and a semester in "Advanced Writing".

About "Bible", I remember only that for one of our projects, my friend Emily and I baked and decorated a cake to represent the six days of creation. Clever, right? And delicious.

I have two memories from "Creative Writing". First, I remember hearing the verdict in the O.J. Simpson trial while sitting in my assigned seat next to the blackboard on the side of the room. An ahead-of-his-time student wore earphones connected to a handheld radio (pretty sure his were the first earbuds I ever saw) to class that day, and midway through the teacher's frustratingly bland lecture the student shouted out, "NOT GUILTY!" Second, I remember discovering, after only a few days in class, that I couldn't stand and would never pursue creative writing.

Available only to senior students who had previously taken a number of prerequisite courses and juniors who had taken the prerequisties and received approval from the instructor, "Advanced Writing" looked like the "who's who" of academically successful students. I felt slightly out of my league, but assumed I wouldn't have received permission to enroll if my grades in past English classes weren't up to snuff.

I can't recall the topic about which we wrote for our first assignment, but I do remember - vividly - my grade...D+. D+. D+, D+, D+. My eyes could read and my lips could speak that horrific letter, but my 17-year-old brain couldn't quite bring this shocking and humbling and embarrassing and maddening new reality into focus. Prior to that day I had never received a grade lower than a B. I honestly thought my parents might kick me out of the house. (My parents assure me they wouldn't have kicked me out for earning a D+, but I didn't know that back then because I'd never gotten a D+ before.) I considered kicking myself out of the house, because I clearly didn't deserve my parents' support with grades like that.

Turns out that on that first assignment, the highest grade in the class - made up of more than 25 A+, top 5% students - was a C-. Our instructor, Mr. Keyes, broke us that day so that he could spend the remainder of the semester building us back up and turning us into strong, proficient writers.

Mr. Keyes crosses my mind almost every day and I still follow many of his rules when crafting my blog posts and articles. "Unless your life depends on it, DO NOT USE THE 'TO BE' VERB" sticks with me more than any other rule, and though you may not notice it, I almost never use a "to be" verb when another way to craft a sentence exists.

Just like I can't recall that first assignment, I can't recall the assignment for which I wrote about the Wiggly Bridge park in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. I do, however, remember that when I wrote about that park (more accurately, when I wrote about the destruction of the park, and how tearing it down affected the neighborhood and community children), the writer inside me came alive. The figurative dam that had blocked communication between my brain and my fingers for the first 17 years of my life didn't just begin to broke wide open. I knew exactly what I wanted to say, and suddenly and miraculously knew how I wanted to say it as well. I wrote not just with a purpose (finish the assignment and receive a grade - any grade - above a D+), but with abandon and joy; I wrote not for the destination, but for the journey.

So if you'd like a glimpse into the topic/assignment/finished product that first opened my heart and engaged my brain and fueled my fingers to begin walking this path, click here.

Oh, and what did Mr. Keyes think of "The Wiggly Bridge"? He gave me an A.

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