Inhumanities

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.

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27 Responses to Inhumanities

  1. So glad K. was there for you! Teachers like C. are definitely not helping people and it’s horrifying that they can get away with squishing students like that. Maybe you should send her an autographed copy of your novel ;)

  2. Kathleen says:

    Thank god, or whomever, for teachers like K. Glad you decided to listen to her, and to your heart. Keep listening. They’re both right.

  3. Renee says:

    Thank goodness for all the teachers like K, and thank you for sharing that story!

  4. christina says:

    awesome, awesome K.

  5. Jennie says:

    So glad for how she inspired you. For the record, she landed me in Saturday detention for the weeks straight. In her defense, though, I am a pretty crappy writer. ;)

  6. Kristin says:

    It’s so great to hear a story like this from the student’s perspective. I know I was the K. teacher for more than a few students (“problem students” are a favorite if they don’t bite me), but I’m just as sure that I was the C. teacher for some as well. Albeit without the higher pay grade of department head. It all comes down to personality (which teachers have no shortage of) and perception. And coffee. Coffee often has more influence than all the rest.

  7. samatwitch says:

    I’m so glad you had K there to inspire you and show you what you could do. Good teachers are gems (says the person with several teachers in her family!) ;)

    I had excellent English teachers in Grades 8 and 10 – special people who knew how to connect with their students. All my life I had wanted to be a teacher – like my mother who ran her own kindergarten to support us after my father died. After Grade 10, I decided I wanted to teach English. In Grade 11, I had one of the crappiest English teachers ever. To be honest, he was recovering from a nervous breakdown and some of the students didn’t help but he should not have been teaching – at least not that year and from what I heard from students who had him as a teacher in his other school, prior to his breakdown, possibly never. Anyway, by the end of the year, I had decided there was no way I was going to be a teacher and turn kids off English as he had.

    Now I realise I would have been a really good English teacher but I had not self-confidence in those days. I’m so glad you rose above C’s attempts to put you down and look at you now!! Hurrah!

  8. shannon says:

    Oh the power of a teacher. This was hard and wonderful to read.

    “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.”

    Beautiful.

  9. Jester Queen says:

    I am cheering for that teacher. So many teachers are C’s. So few are K’s. I had plenty C’s, but mostly they fell into the nice-to-her-but-unhelpful category, because I was a good student who got bullied. When I left high school in 10th grade and realized what a total waste it had been? I turned to writing. I was homeschooled for a year and went to college instead. There were still the same teacher personalities, but there was a third level, one where they really wanted to engage us as learners. And until that time, I had exactly one teacher who had ever wanted to see me give a damn. And it was in third grade.

    And that first year of college, that third grade teacher was working on her continuing education credits. I took American Sign Language and so did she. I was in the same class as my former teacher, now as a student. So awesome.

  10. This is a wonderful story! Teachers who can see past the defenses, the walls, the bullshit, etc., and get to the REAL person are so necessary. Good teachers truly make all the difference. I’m so glad you had K. Getting kicked out of the other class seems like it was such a gift.

  11. aboleyn says:

    I love this piece. I have been so fortunate with my children’s teachers so far as the teachers at the charter school they had both attended until this year are amazing, wonderful people. Now that my son has moved on to middle school I hope he encounters far more K’s then C’s.

  12. Gina says:

    Awwwww! It takes one, just one, to turn things around for a kid. Having someone to understand and believe in you is priceless. I loved your story.

  13. QuoterGal says:

    It’s so disturbing that there are teachers like “C.” (I had many), but at least satisfying that there are at least a few like “K.” I’m so glad she heard and helped you bring out your Writer-y Self.

    I had a Cee You Next Tuesday for my h.s. junior year English – she was a pedant & a bully, though after one brief go, she never tried it on me again. But she bullied shyer kids, and though a small group of us reported her behavior to the Dean, he paid not the slightest attention. (But he was the same kind of person.) She was appalling & she came*this* close to ruining Shakespeare for me. Luckily I did fine – she couldn’t stop me from loving reading – so I got passed on to AP English for senior year…

    …where I met Dr. Dickens, the man who taught me to read, and think, and argue, and write, and believe in myself as a reader, a student, a writer, and a person. I’d been a good student overall, but once I disliked a class, or felt alienated by a teacher, I stopped listening, and then stopped attending. I was a “problem” student – and they were rare in the AP track. I got the underachiever pep talk standard issues #1, 2 & 3 all the time. School was bullshit, the teachers were useless, I couldn’t wait to get out.

    Enter Louis Dickens – a descendent of Charles Dickens, which we thought was *so* cool – who was one of those once-in-a-lifetime teachers, and teaches you how to look beneath the surface of what you’re reading, and everything else – including yourself.

    (He lived nearby me, and once I walked to school behind him, and watched him scoop up drowning worms from puddles, and deposit them safely in the grass – *just* like I did. That’s when I started to love him.)

    When I left h.s., he wrote this in my yearbook: “To a gracious, graceful powerhouse of vitality, charm and discernment.” I’ve never received a compliment that affected me more, and which I still remember, though the yearbook itself is long gone. And If I was ever any of those things, in class or afterwards, it was mostly because he taught me that I was already better than I ever thought I could be.

    I had average or shittier teachers the next years in college, and no one again ever as good as he. There was one very much like your “C.” – she taught “Creative Writing” & “Women in Lit”, and she was such a controlling tool – she managed to mistake “Female Domination” for “Female Empowerment” – and once tried to make me leave *my own apartment* for a seminar she was holding there. But that’s another story. ; ]

    Here’s to the good ones – they make all the difference.

    Sorry this is so fling-flanging long.

  14. I had a similar experience with a horrible teacher who hated me for not doing something just as stupid as that poetry forum lady. Fuck them. We rock. This proves it (about you, jury may still be out on me, but that’s cool). Good teachers are amazing; bad ones can suck it.

  15. Mayor Gia says:

    Awww I love stories about teachers like this! Awesome!

  16. Carrie says:

    What a great story. I love that you had a teacher who believed in you. I was too quiet for any teacher to truly take notice of. You are insanely lucky to have met someone who helped you to regain your confidence. And as if you need to be told, but you are a fantastic writer!

  17. Benoit Chartier says:

    I’m glad you found a sympathetic ear, and even more so, that you found it in yourself to persevere.

  18. Everything that’s wrong and everything that’s right in public education, all in one post. I’m glad you landed in K’s class, too.

  19. I loved that she believed in a marked kid with an attitude and made him a believer in himself. good stuff.

  20. Kianwi says:

    This made me sad sad and happy sad. Teachers, like parents, can have so much influence. My inspiration was Mr. D in Satire class. He showed me a whole different way of looking at writing, and reading for that matter.

    Wonderfuly story, wonderfully told.

  21. Joe says:

    We need more, many more, teachers like K.

  22. Pippi says:

    Sounds like you had a great teacher, mentor, and friend in K. I had a few of those in my day. One, in fact, is someone I still keep up with on Facebook.

  23. Birdman says:

    I had teachers that told me all through school that my writing was not good. I was all over the place, and the reader wouldn’t be able to follow it. I don’t know if it changed, but 24 years after getting expelled from high school, I started my blog, and it was the only writing I’ve done since high school. I’m not saying that I’m a great writer, but I think I’ve found a forum that works for me. Great story about perseverance. I wish I’d stuck with it, like you did.

  24. IASoupMama says:

    You never know what impact (positive or negative) your words will have on a person. My AP English teacher told me I had no voice in my writing. Three months later, my first college English prof wanted to use a personal essay I wrote in the next edition of her text. And then I stopped writing for almost 20 years. When I picked it back up, I wrote what was comfortable for me — memoir, personal reflection, etc. And then someone challenged me to try my hand at fiction. I’ll call that fella Mr. S, short for Mr. Sipple.

  25. Oh wow, Eric! What a truly spectacular story. WAY better than Good Will Hunting and it should be made into a movie immediately. So well done, you. I’m curious, though. What gives on this “subscribe now and I’ll send you an awful picture of myself”? Am I going to have to UNsubscribe just to re-subscribe and get in on this shit, or what?

  26. I am SO glad that you had K. Everyone needs that kind of support, especially those of us who need to be rebuilt after others knock us down.
    Great story!

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