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March 4, 2010

This past weekend I was reminded of something I hadn't thought about in a long time.

The scene: 11th grade honors English
The place: Plano East Senior High
The date: You figure it out

We had just finished reading the Scarlet Letter and were assigned a nice long paper about it. I worked overtime on my paper, excited to get a chance to share my opinion about the book and stretch those five paragraph essay muscles we had worked so hard to develop in 9th and 10th grade.

I turned in my paper, and after a few days all the papers were graded and in the hands of our teacher. She was retiring that year – had been an excellent English teacher for many years at my high school  – and was spoken of fondly by former students. I didn't know much about her, other than she seemed kind of old and strict. It was hard for me to make her smile, and that was something I'd never had a problem with before.

So I should have known going into this that things would be different.

My teacher walked the aisles of the classroom, just like in a movie, handing out our graded papers and discussing how crappily we'd all done. There were only a few papers that deserved a good grade, she said, and even those weren't great. I was upset that my paper was deemed "not great," but immediately assumed that of course it was one of the ones with a good grade.


I got my paper back with a big red 64 on it. An F.

I had never failed anything before EVER. In any class. At any time. I was an uber nerd, and proud of it. So when I saw that 64 I didn't know what to think. A mistake? Surely. Maybe she accidentally wrote someone else's grade on my paper. From, you know, being old and prone to confusion.

After class I ran up to her desk and could barely form words. I just held the paper out to her and made indiscriminate sad grunting noises. She looked at me over the tops of her glasses and tapped her finger on the comment she had written under the 64. "Too creative and impressionistic!"

I strangled out a "whuh?" and then the bell rang and I had to run to my next class.

She failed me for being too creative? What does that even mean? I was thunderstruck. I didn't even know how she'd come up with the random 64. Where was the math that showed where the points had been taken off? (This was a question that was never answered – all year long she just randomly assigned number grades for papers.)

Suddenly, I worried I had lost my nerdiness. My good grades were in jeopardy. My writing ability was tarnished. And being able to write – that was something I'd depended on since the 1st grade.

So I did what any sane person would do, I found the address of my 10th grade English teacher – the teacher who had been difficult and barred the use of be-verbs – and I rang her doorbell at exactly dinner time. (Keep in mind, this was before the internet. So finding her address took true stalking capabilities.)

Her daughter answered the door. "Mo-om! There's a… uh… kid here for you!"

Mrs. Briedwell, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel she was carrying, came to the front door with a quizzical look on her face. As soon as I saw her I burst into tears. Without even saying anything, I stood on her doorstep, sobbing and hiccuping and making an insane fool of myself, and I handed her my paper.

She took one look at it and ushered me inside. She sat me down at her nice dining room table and patted my shoulder until I calmed down.

"She failed me…" I kept sputtering. "How could I FAIL? What does being too creative even MEAN?"

Mrs. Briedwell, bless her heart, sat with me for a long time, going over the paper, reading my teacher's comments, and trying to explain to me what I had done "wrong." I could smell her family's dinner cooking, and I knew I couldn't stay forever, but I didn't want to leave her house until I understood what I had done and how I could fix it.

Ultimately, I left understanding that there are teachers who celebrate your voice, who enjoy listening to new arguments and weird ideas about literature. They thrive on the debate and the "learning moments." Then there are other teachers who expect you to take their ideas and regurgitate them into your own words.

I bridled at this thought, of course. I wasn't supposed to come up with my own ideas? I had to just memorize what someone else had interpreted? Yes. If I wanted to make good grades in this course, that's exactly what I was supposed to do.

And I capitulated. I wish I could say I was one of those kids who took a stand and fought the mean old lady and won. But I didn't. In fact, Mrs. Briedwell was very clear with me that in such a fight I would never be the winner. Not at that time. Not at that school. So instead of fighting, I got passive-aggressive.

When I wrote subsequent papers and essays I added in snarky comments that could be interpreted different ways. Double entendres. Satire. And I got away with it. Was my teacher so literal that she didn't get it? Was she too tired to fight a young, annoying upstart? I don't know. What I do know is that the only praise I ever got from that teacher was in response to a satirical essay I wrote about war. She thought it was completely serious and nominated it for publication in the student literary journal.

That, of course, made me laugh.

I don't know if I came out of that class victorious, but I did come out of it with an appreciation for different teaching styles, and an appreciation for just how far to bend your own scruples in order to make it out of an uncomfortable situation with a fair amount of self-esteem intact.

It was a rough year, and it pissed me off. It made me want to be a great writer, and award-winning writer, so I could thank my teacher for failing me on the grounds of creativity.

Still waiting to win an award, but maybe I'll dedicate a book to her.

To Mrs. Howell. For being a pain in the ass, and for making me want to be a better writer.

Those really aren't bad things, are they?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. E. Kristin Anderson permalink
    March 7, 2010 7:26 pm

    When I was in third grade I had a substitute teacher hold up my handwriting work book and tell the whole class "Emily will never get anywhere in life because of her poor handwriting."She’s probably croaked by now, but I’d really like to tell her IN YOUR FACE, BEEYATCH.This is a great story, though, Kari. We creative types have had to battle the establishment from day 1, haven’t we?

  2. Anonymous permalink
    March 18, 2010 2:50 am

    That is so sad. I’m so glad she didn’t quash your creative spirit, though. And I am so impressed with your 10th grade teacher! How sweet of her to take so much time with you and lay things out for you that way. I had a similar experience my freshman year of high school. Writing had *always* been my *thing* and every teacher I had up until then lauded me for my sophisticated vocabulary and innate understanding of grammar and structure. Then I got Mr. Stelk in 9th grade and he flunked my first paper. I cried and cried and he seemed completely baffled at how hard I was taking it. He said, point blank, that my writing just wasn’t very good. I wish I could have gone back to the 8th grade teacher who wrote "You should skip high school and go straight to college" at the top of my research paper and gotten some encouragement, but the thought never even crossed my mind. I just limped along through the year until it was over and vowed to never let another teacher make me feel that awful about myself.

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