Sunday, July 03, 2016

You're not a writer...

You can't write. It wasn't told to me in those very words, but that was my take away in Junior High. I wasn't a good writer, I wasn't even a good student according to some of my teachers.  Somehow, I knew that my teachers were wrong about my potential, especially Miss Williams.
Sue Williams may still be around, if she is I hope she is reading this right now. She was my 7th grade English teacher in Abernathy, Texas.  It was her first year as a teacher and I hope, if she continued to teach, she learned how to be better at it.  It is a situation that can only happen in a small town like Abernathy and needs context to really explain.

Sue was the daughter of my favorite teacher Esther Williams.  Not the movie star swimmer but the Junior High Science teacher, beloved by everyone lucky enough to get into her class.  Being a small town Mrs. Williams lived three doors down from my parents on the opposite side of the street.  She was widowed from her husband and had one a daughter, who went off  to college when I was in elementary school. Mrs Williams was a loving person/neighbor/teacher who had the hint of a Swedish accent, I think the entire town loved her back.

As a kid I would see Sue around the neighborhood.  She was probably ten years older than me so we were not playmates. She was just the "older" girl who lived up the street.  I knew her well enough to  wave and call her Sue.  She was blonde, very attractive, and I admit to having a boyhood crush on her.
Then came the day I started the 7th grade. To my surprise Sue Williams is now a college graduate with teaching certificate and is the new Junior High English teacher.  I figured she would be the same kind of teacher as her Mom.  Add teenage hormones to a boyhood crush? I figured I was going to like this class.
The first day, however,  was a harbinger of things to come. She began that class by saying, "Some of you may know that I grew up here in Abernathy. And you know my Mom teaches Science here. Some of you may know me as Sue."
At that point she looked in my direction and said, "I am no longer Sue. I am Miss Williams, your teacher and you will refer to me in that way from now on." I got the point. From that moment on she seemed determined to destroy any self esteem I had developed the year before in her Mothers science class.  
Miss Williams knew I had trouble reading but seemed to delight in getting me in front of the class to read out loud. Perhaps she thought embarrassing me in front of the class would make me a better reader.  It didn't work. It only made me feel like a total loser. She harped on me as if my misspellings were an  insult to her teaching ability. My essays were never graded higher than a C. I couldn't work hard enough to get above a C+ average in her class.

I loathed English that year. It was not a fun learning experience like it was in her Mothers class.  She assigned a very heavy "reading and book report" assignment to the class.  Being a dyslexic I could barely finish one book a year, much less the five book reports a semester she assigned. My brother on the other hand was a voracious reader.  He read books one after the other.  I would occasionally ask him to tell me the story of a book he was reading which he could do in detail.  I would write the story he told me and turn it in as my book report.   I realized early on in Miss Williams class that it didn't matter if I had read the book or not... I still got a C.

There came a time when yet another book report was due.  My brother was reading some Mystery novel at the time and I asked him to tell me about it.  He went into great detail about this murder case the hero detective was trying to solve.  The book was entitled "The Deep".  It had great twists and turns, red herrings and lots of near misses.  When my brother got to the end, he said, "I'm not going to tell you how it ends, it would spoil it for you, when you read it."  I tried several ways to get him to tell all but he wouldn't budge.  The next day I turned in a detailed story report on "The Deep".  However, not knowing how it ended I used my brothers technique.  The last line of my bogus book report... ""I'm not going to tell you how it ends, it would spoil it for you, when you read it."  I got a C.

In spite of hating every minute of this class, the end of the year finally came.  Miss Williams passed out our final exam papers.  She said, "The final question is an essay. I have chosen specific individual questions for each of you to write about.  Write at least a page on the subject. It will be worth 40 percent of your grade."  I had long suspected that Miss Williams was on to my bogus book reports, but I was never sure. At least not until I saw my final question written in long hand on my mimeographed test.
"Explain in detail the ending and the solution to the mystery in the book 'The Deep'.  It won't spoil it for me... I have already read the book." Even then I understood the passive aggressive nature of this "personalize question".
The rest of the test was not that difficult.  By the time I got to the essay question I figured it out. Even if I got a perfect score on the rest of the test; without a good essay I could not get more than a failing grade on this final. Since I did not read the book, I had no idea what the ending was.  I sat there with my blank page and Bic pen feeling not only like a loser but like a failure as well.
There was not much to do but go for it.  If I was going to fail I was going out in flames, determined not to let a blank page or Miss Williams get the best of me.
I spent half the essay describing the plot points I remembered from what my brother told me. I vamped some more as creatively as I could for another quarter page. But now... it was time for that last paragraph, the solution to the mystery murder, the only thing that mattered to my grade or Miss Williams.
I thought and thought about the plot and the characters of the story.  I had no idea what the real ending was, I only knew that it had to be something completely different.  It had to be a character no one would expect to be the killer.  I watched the clock count down the minutes till we had to turn in the test.  As I racked my brain trying to write the last paragraph lost in the daze of crunching my brain cells I noticed Miss Williams looking over at me as if to say, "I got you this time."  My boyhood crush had turned into an absolute disgust toward this passive aggressive hag of a teacher.  
Suddenly that anger turned into an idea.  Who would be the most Unlikely killer in this story? Which character would be the most shocking when revealed as the murderer?  It suddenly came to me.  The Detective.  Justifying this imaginary plot twist took another half a page but it made total sense.  The detective kept throwing off the investigation, he was leading the others down the wrong path to solve it with suspects that could not have been the killer. Another detective discovers details of the killing in the lead detective's first report that only the murder would have known.  End of story, end of question, end of test, end of school, end of that class and most importantly end of my relationship with Miss Williams.
It was days before we got the tests back. I was not looking forward to a failing grade but didn't see there was any other chance in my future. As I slowly turned over the test papers that had been handed out, I saw, instead of failing, I got a B on the test.  I could not imagine how this had happened because the essay was worth 40% of the grade, since I was surely busted on my bogus book report the best I could hope for was a D.  But there it was one of my best grades of the class.  
The reality is, Miss Williams had NOT read the book. She was simply applying her passive aggressive nature to my final test, perhaps just to get me to admit the fact that I had not been keeping up with the assigned reading.  It backfired on her. The story report in my final essay explained a logical and surprising twist to a book that was believable.  If that was not the correct ending she would have to admit that she lied about having read the book.  I pulled a C+ for the course.  
Two years later we moved from the little town of Abernathy. I enrolled in Richardson Texas school that had three times the number of students in my class than the number of students in the entire Abernathy Public School system. In this environment it was much harder for a teacher to single out a student for personalized punishment and I actually flourished as a student. In that system there were educators who identified my problem as dyslexia. The idea that I might have a minor disability rather than just being lazy and/or stupid was a great boost to my self confidence.  
I never heard another word about Miss Williams. She would now be in her late 70's and probably not Miss Willams any more.  I assume if she continued to be a teacher either she got better, or was run out of some school on a rail.  But, I'm still a little pissed about the whole thing even after this many decades.
A writer is some one who can put ideas and words together in a structure that works for the intended purpose. I could always do that and got better with practice. Miss Williams never read my English assignments looking for raw ideas, she was grading me on my bad spelling, and juvenile grammar. To Miss Williams I would now say: computers now do most of that analysis for me, leaving me free to write better ideas and express them more fully. In reality then, my computer has made Miss Williams abilities obsolete.  
This week I received a residual check from a script I wrote for an animated film fifteen years ago. It was one of many sizable checks I have gotten for that work over the years. It made me think again of good ole Miss Williams. I often wonder what happened to the kids that "Aced" Miss Williams English class. I wonder if any of them are writers. My hope is that they found some other route to their self esteem than relying on the opinion of Miss Williams.  
As you were, 


P. Grecian said...

I had an English teacher in high school who was a vandal.
She had this policy whereby you would write an essay, she would correct for clarity of content and punctuation/spelling. Two grades. She'd pass it back and you could make corrections and turn it back in and she would then grade your corrections.
My first one was my opinion on something. I've forgotten just what.
I wrote it and turned it in.
I got it back with no corrections on punctuation/spelling and an "F" on clarity of content. "Oh, Phil, you don't believe this."
I handed it back as it stood. Nothing to correct.
The second one was "My philosophy of life."
I handed it in.
Same result. "F" on clarity of content. Note said, "This is the wrong philosophy." I was agog.
I turned it in.
Several other essays that nine weeks.
All with the same results.
And when she passed the papers back to everyone, she had conveniently lost all of mine.
I got an "F" for the nine weeks.
My dad, aghast, talked to her.
I went to the principal.
Nothing could be done, we were told, without the evidence she had "lost."
So my dad called her every day to "see how I was doing." Actually, it was to make sure she knew she was being watched.
I did nothing different.
The next nine weeks I got an "A," which I was used to in English courses...except, of course, for hers.
The following year, she was gone from the school.
Years later, the principal and I became friends, and he told me, "She was a horrible woman, but she had a contract with the school and we couldn't prove anything. But the contract was up the next year, and I kicked her out."
Never heard from or about the woman again.
Long story, wasn't it? But you reminded me of it with your story.
I think we both made out better than those two horrible teachers.

Connie Kaplan said...

My freshman English teacher told me I had absolutely no talent for writing. It was all I could do NOT to dedicate my first book to her.

Lloyd Lebow said...

I would have been in the sixth grade that year. I don't even remember Sue Williams. I had Mrs Embry. But, you were right about Esther Williams. I had her for sixth and eighth grade science. Then, maybe as penance for her daughters terrible teaching of English, they moved her to high school English and I got her for Sophomore and Senior English. I hit the jackpot. She was also the Drama club sponsor and coached the one act play competition teams. She had a lasting impact on all of us. Glad you got out and got the help you needed.