This is the story of the day I began to believe I was not a writer.
I was 21 years old, and almost halfway through my junior year in college. I went to a small, private college with less than a thousand students. On this particular day, I walked across the student union, my footsteps echoing behind me.
The thing I liked best about the union were the echoes of my feet shuffling and the reverberating voices of friends you could hear as you walked through. I have a memory of a day my mom and I walked through the union during winter break when no one was around, and we sang the hymn, “Trust and Obey,” acapella. She sang soprano and I sang alto. Our echoing song gave me chills.
But, I digress. On this particular day that I formed my belief that I wasn’t a writer, there were no songs and no happy voices that I remember. All I remember was walking over to my mailbox in the union, turning the key, and anxiously pulling out the paper I had written for British Literature, Second Survey.
This paper had a big, fat, ugly, red C written on it at the top.
My heart began to race. This was my third C on a paper in this English class, AND I WAS AN ENGLISH MAJOR FOR GOD’S SAKE! I was an honor roll student–NOT a C student, and I couldn’t bear the thought of committing myself to a field where I was not excelling. I felt a mix of anxiety and anger, as I clutched the paper close to me.
I decided to do what I always did in college when I was freaking out: I RAN.
I didn’t even know where the heck I was running to. I just carelessly sprinted across campus, becoming more winded by the second, as I breathed in the blustery air of Northern Indiana.
As I reached the other end of campus, I looked up and saw Shoup House.
Shoup House was not my campus house. But it was a house where a few of my friends lived. One of those friends was an English major.
“Becca!” I shouted. “I’m going to see Becca,” as if my subconscious knew where I was headed all along.
I ran in, sped up the wooden stairway, where I was greeted at the top by Becca and two of my friends. They quickly noticed I was not there for just a friendly chat. I was there because I was having a moment.
“Damn that son of a bitch!! 😡” I yelled, throwing my paper on the floor.
The girls quickly realized the “son of a bitch” I was referring to was Professor Tom David. Professor David was young, cool, and some girls even thought he was hot. (Gag.) His muscles and boyish good looks appeared fake to me, just like his neatly coifed hair. During my sophomore and junior years of college, Tom was unfortunately teaching a larger number of classes than normal for the English department, since two other professors were on sabbatical, as I remember.
Every English class with Professor David was PAINFUL. My upper level English classes typically had anywhere from 15-20 students in them. Tom displayed an obvious favoritism for the outspoken hipster students in the class from day 1. He would start anecdotes with, “Last night I was at the Electric Brew, having coffee with Caitlin and Brad, and we got into this really interesting conversation about the use of imagery in William Carlos Williams’ poetry…” And I would be forced to listen to him name drop the names of the “cool kids” throughout a story that had NOTHING to do with William Carlos Williams.
I simply could not compete with the Caitlins and the Brads. They were badass, cool, confident, highly-favored hipsters. They loved Tom, despite his preppy cardigans and argyle sweaters, and he loved them.
The non-hipsters in the class, me and my friend, Michelle, sat off to the side in class, furiously taking notes. Todd never called on us, and may have even forgotten we were there, until one of us had the courage to timidly raise our hand, with our voice shaking, heart palpitating, and finally saying, “Um, I think that T.S. Eliot’s use of the objective correlative in British literature is actually used by a lot of screenwriters nowadays,” and mid-sentence we would suddenly realize that Tom David DIDN’T EVEN GIVE A SHIT, and wasn’t listening to what we were saying. And so we would suddenly forget the very important, courageous thing we were trying to say, and end up stuttering as we looked around the room at people who refused to make eye contact.
And then, eventually, we stopped speaking in his classes. Like totally. We became selective mutes, since we grew tired of his disdain for us.
We were also tired of feeling knocked down. Tired of feeling not enough. I was doing everything I could to write a good English paper, but I continued to receive Cs that were covered with negative, red slashes all over my paper.
I felt like my identity as a writer was being stripped away.
I had been working as the student manager/director of the writing center at my college. I was responsible for tutoring several students to write papers. I was helping them succeed. Yet, I couldn’t seem to catch a break myself. I felt like a fraud.
And this feeling was enough to cause me to withdraw from my English classes at college and drop my English major, even though I was one class away from completing it. ONE. DUMB. CLASS. With dumb Tom David. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Not only that, I stopped writing completely. I didn’t write anything substantial for sixteen years. And for sixteen years I felt a certain degree of emptiness–an emptiness that haunts you when you aren’t fully doing what you were meant to do.
It’s scary because I let one person–one teacher–have that kind of effect on my life. And it shows how we, as teachers, play a major role in how our students view themselves.
Tom David (as far as I could assess in my 21 year old brain) thought I couldn’t do it–I couldn’t write a paper worthy of his intellectual time or a decent grade. He showed me through his body language that my comments in class were not worthy of even being acknowledged.
And I believed him. Even though he was ONE PERSON.
He was my teacher. And now that I’m a teacher myself, I try to remind myself of this experience as much as possible, because it keeps me focused on the task at hand: teaching my students to BELIEVE they can GROW academically in their abilities.
If I don’t believe that, how will they?
I have the opportunity to show my students that the most important part of learning is growth. I modify instruction and student work, while looking at students’ data over time. Each child is unique and has a specific set of challenges and abilities. As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence.
Oh my god, I think I need to say that again.
As they grow and improve through hard work and practice, they gain self confidence.
That, right there, ⬆️ was a difficult lesson for me to learn. I dropped my English major when it got difficult, because I didn’t know that I could improve anymore.
Anyone will quit something he thinks he sucks at, if he doesn’t believe he can improve. Anyone–adult or child.
Now, I don’t blame Tom David for my decision to quit my English classes. I was the quitter. I was the one who gave up. I was so intimidated by him that I didn’t ask for help, nor did I get a tutor, because I was too proud. That was my choice, and I learned from it.
And what I learned is actually invaluable–I learned that I have INCREDIBLE power as an educator to help my students develop beliefs about themselves–beliefs that can set them on a positive trajectory for life. And the first belief I want to instill is that it is through hard work–not just being smart, that one accomplishes the work that he or she was born to do. ❤️
Me (in the red) and a bunch of other non-English major college peeps, doing our non-English major thing.