The Impact of Mere Words

Growing up, I was never a fan of English class. It’s not as though I didn’t have some great English teachers, because I did. It was the curriculum. I can appreciate grammar for the sake of what it brings about, but I’ll never love it for its own sake. And as for the literature side of things, for every The Count of Monte Cristo (Murder! Betrayal! Intrigue!) there were three or four nightmares along the lines of The Old Curiosity Shop (Walking! Talking! Dying of natural causes!).

It’s therefore safe to say I didn’t hold out much hope for AP English in my senior year of high school. I figured it would net me some credits that would get me out of what would probably be an even worse class in college, and that would be that for my formalized English education. Earlier in the week I talked about a crisis point where I nearly gave up writing. Today, because I apparently enjoy working in reverse chronological order, I’m going to talk about how critical my AP English teacher was to my decision to become a writer. Because while I’d learned I could enjoy writing two years prior (as detailed in this old post), she was the person who convinced me I was good at it.

I’ve never been a particularly self-confident person. It’s a problem that persists to this day. In high school I was a very good student but never top in my class, and I was content to let the truly elite students grab all the embarrassing attention that came with all that confidence and all those As. But my teacher in twelfth grade ran a different kind of English class. She postponed tests on a whim. She let us play croquet outside once the AP exam was over in the spring. She would regularly trade examples of Simpsons trivia with me. She was a lot of fun, and she enjoyed her job. When a teacher cares about what she or he is doing, it’s always obvious.

Now because the senior reading curriculum was a little more flexible we were able to tackle books that had more complex themes. I found these more complex ideas interested me. Her writing assignments held my interest and weren’t just a rush to put down on paper what I thought the teacher wanted to hear as quickly as possible. I was really analyzing the stuff I read, thinking hard about how I interpreted books like Heart of Darkness and The King Must Die.

Which brings me to another thing my teacher tended to do that would prove significant. When she’d hand back essays, she would mention aloud the one or two she thought ranked among the best in the class. Just rattle off the names to give a little public praise, always a good thing. And because I’d been going to school with the same group of kids my whole life, those names were rarely surprising. Until one day, getting near the semester break. Our teacher listed off the same one or two students who, as usual, had produced sterling essays analyzing whatever book we were reading at the time. And then she said “but Greg is really turning out to be a dark horse candidate for best writer in the class.” I’d known she liked my writing from her comments on my papers all year up to that point. But I remember being startled to hear it spoken aloud and phrased in such a fashion. Not just good, but one of the best?  I’ve never forgotten that comment.

I learned to like writing my sophomore year. But I started believing I could be good at it my senior year, thanks to Mrs. Whitten. And however good a writer I was then or have become now, I doubt I can ever fully convey my gratitude in mere words. So please keep in mind, whether you’re in the position to influence a young mind or not, how much of a positive impact your words of praise can have on a person. I know I count these particular words among my greatest gifts as a writer.


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