I had to get kicked out of honors English to believe in myself as a writer.
There’d been a fight at the end of my Junior year. Well, ok, a couple of fights, and with the head of the English department (who we’ll call C.). Shouting matches. In class. In the principal’s office. In the hallway. I don’t think I was told I couldn’t finish high school in the honors track, but it was clear enough that honors English didn’t want me any more than I wanted it.
Thus, I started senior year not in college-application-friendly AP English, but Humanities. English for the masses. My teacher (let’s call her K.) eyed me suspiciously from the first day. I wasn’t sure if she knew why I’d been exiled, but she seemed to know enough to be wary. We didn’t really speak. I handed in papers, she graded them. Nothing more. I guessed that K. didn’t like me, but that didn’t matter. I couldn’t remember the last English teacher who had. When K. asked me to stay after class a month into the school year, I was ready to be told – once again – what a thoroughly mediocre waste of time I was.
“You know,” K. said, “I was warned you were going to be a problem. I thought you were going to be trouble, but you aren’t.”
I had a rep. That was new. “I can guess who said that.”
K. smiled. I wasn’t expecting a smile. “So, what happened?”
I don’t know why I decided to be honest with her. I know it’s not smart to badmouth one teacher to another, especially not when the teacher in question is the Queen Bee of the English department. I guess I was angry. It was one thing to be kicked out of a class, but C. was trying to burn me. She’d already tried to block my way into National Honors Society. Now she was turning teachers against me?
This is what happened: There’d been this poetry forum that the 11th and 12th grade honors English teachers decided to host, but our classes weren’t held on the same period. C. demanded that we – the 11th graders – miss whatever class we had scheduled to attend her poetry forum. By Junior year, I was convinced I had no place amongst these people. I saw my grades. The humanities were not my field. To be told I had to miss another class for some kind of poetry forum was too much. I demanded to be excused. When that didn’t work, I went to the principal. When that didn’t work, I skipped the poetry forum and went to my normal class. Halfway into the period, C. found me, dragged me to the principal’s office, threatened to suspend me, dragged me into the hallway and told me what a miserable waste of a human being I was.
I told K. all of it. When I finished, I expected nothing more than a noncommittal nod and a swift dismissal. If I was lucky, I thought, she’d realize that I was just mouthy and stubborn, not an actual Problem Student, and we could go back to ignoring each other.
Instead, K. said, “That’s exactly how she is.”
Oh, and she was smiling again.
C., in her zeal to make me pay for standing up to her, had burned me with the wrong person. She’d just assumed – the same way I’d assumed – that K. was part of the club. Just another arbitrary grader of uninspired writing assignments, imposing her narrow, dull view of literature on her students. I thought they were all like that, English teachers. I thought it was just me who didn’t belong. That moment, the moment when I realized I was sitting with a teacher who was different – that different was a possibility – might have been the most important moment of my life.
The next week, K. asked me to stay after class again. She had books for me. Not class assignment books. Fantasy books. C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy. She was sharing books with me. I’d put a wall between my reading and school reading, the same way I kept writing fiction even after years of English classes convinced me I had no talent for it. K.’s gift of books said something else: they weren’t different, my reading and school reading. In the months that followed, she taught me the same thing about writing.
The class discussed Hamlet as fiction and not liturgy. We read Beowulf, and in place of a midterm we were allowed to write a piece of epic poetry. I joined the National Forensics League and read “Harrison Bergeron” in front of a room full of people. K.’s class was the first time I believed it wasn’t me that was broken, but the teachers that had dissolved my self-confidence. She gave me the space to realize that my furtive fictional scribblings weren’t an anomaly, but proof that I loved writing enough to keep at it long after I decided I sucked.
K. did more than teach me about writing. She taught me I could write. It was my decision to write if I wanted to, and nothing – not a lifetime of terrible classes, not a vengeful teacher – could tell me otherwise. It’s a lesson I’ve had to relearn more than once (I am, in fact, learning it again, right now), but K. taught it to me first, and she did it just before it was too late for me to learn.
She was pregnant that year, K., and she went on leave before graduation. On her last day, I wrote her a letter and dropped it in her purse for her to find when she got home. I don’t remember what I wrote, but if I’d had to, I could have stopped after two words: Thank you.