Organizing my office usually dissolves rather quickly into sitting on the floor as I read through old letters, articles and journals. During a recent clean-up, I came upon a thick folder of compositions from high school. I had not looked at these pages for over a decade, but of course I needed to read through each and every page right then and there. Reader, there is no way to overstate how large and loopy my handwriting was back in high school. But reading through the pages, I can see the early traces of my unique writer’s voice straining through the bad spelling and overuse of adjectives.
I sat, making a bigger mess than I’d started with as I read through comments from teachers, praising my writing and sense of humor and chastising my spelling. The papers have big red 100s written on top of each one. I wasn’t always a great student, in fact I was commonly referred to as an ‘underachiever,’ but I got A’s in English Comp. Always. That is, until senior year when I landed in Mr. Mortimer’s class.
Up until then, I was never what you’d call a ‘hand things in on time’ kinda gal, but other writing teachers let this slide. As they said; “Reading your paper was a breath of fresh air,” “Thank you for the laugh, Laurie,” and “This is the best one yet.” But instead of glowing praise, Mr. Mortimer’s papers came back marked: ‘Late 1 day,’ ‘Late 2 days,’ ‘Late 3 days,’ with ten points deducted for each day past my deadline.
On one he wrote, “70/100 Laurie, you write so well. I just wish I could get you to take it more seriously so I didn’t have to put these grades on your papers.” I remember thinking, ‘He’s annoyed by the grades? This class was supposed to be my easy A!’ I can still feel the faint strands of resentment as I read through his (valid) suggestions for improvement and scant praise. And then, I find it. On the back of my final assignment this handwritten note to me:
I don’t say that you must pursue writing as a career because it is a tough field to make a living in. But you must write. You have developed an excellent sense of diction and timing. I wish I could take credit for helping but, alas, I know better. Anyway, even if you have fourteen children and are pregnant with twins, you can still write and sell on the freelance market. Don’t let anyone destroy your style. Listen, evaluate, take suggestions, but don’t quit and don’ t change unless you are convinced it is a change to improve. Find your subject, become intimate with it, and then write about it. You’ve got potential. Now do you have desire and drive?
The pages are yellowed, but the power of that letter reaches forward through the years and still has an impact on me. I wish to respond:
Dear Mr. Mortimer,
Thank you for challenging me and inspiring me and especially for pushing me to take my writing seriously. Over the years, I’ve developed that discipline I needed and you weren’t kidding about how important it is. Deadlines really do matter, and thanks to you I’ve never missed a single one. The publishing business can be brutal but my love for writing hasn’t diminished. Thank you for encouraging me to pursue it. I still adore that image of my future-writer-self with all those kids running around. (I went with just the two, but it often feels like more.) Your open-ended letter pushes me to the page wanting to prove; Yes, I do have the desire. Yes, I do have the drive. Mr. Mortimer, Thank You for pulling it out of me.
And with that, I leave the mess of papers piled on the floor, and I’m off to write.
-Laurie Boyle Crompton
*In honor of Teacher Appreciation Week (May 6-10), we at Blink want to thank each person who works in the education profession. We know the work you do isn’t always easy; however, the impact you have can be life-changing.
In an effort to honor those who have shaped and molded us, each day this week will feature a special blog post from a Blink author about a teacher—or teachers—who had a profound impact in their life.
To all those working in the education field—thank you for believing in us when we didn’t know how to believe in ourselves. We value and admire the work that you do!