Silent Influences

Even though I'd started reading at an early age, I had a hard time with composition in high school. There were a number of factors at play that I didn't realize at the time. One was that this was a college preparatory school, meaning they made it their business to challenge the students. (An experience my first week in college had me appreciative of this aspect in a particular way: I was one of only a handful in my class who tested out of the rather pathetic "Grammar Workshop" which was the bane of my friends' coursework for several weeks.)

I loved all the reading we did in my Honors English classes, but the writing sometimes got me down. We started getting into analytical papers my junior year, and it was hard for me. My teacher, Mrs. M., was tough on me, but she really wanted me to "get it." I wanted to, as well, mostly because I didn't like to get things wrong (perfectionist much?). When I started my junior year, things went a little haywire in my life. I'd started getting help for my anxiety, but just to even things out my mom decided to tell me, six months after the fact, that my grandfather (her father) had married his secretary. It had not been even two years since my grandmother had passed, and at not quite sixteen I didn't know how to process that new information at all.

At the end of October, my other grandfather (dad's father) went into the hospital. His health was failing, and in early November he died. I couldn't even deal with my own grief about it--he was the grandparent I'd spent the most time with--because so many relatives, many of whom I didn't know, kept coming to the house every night to hang out and mourn, for several nights. Try doing your homework when there are a million people and a ton of food around. It was too dark and too far to go to the library, and I felt helpless and ignored.

Of course, I had a paper due in Mrs. M.'s class, and I was stuck. I felt horrible telling her, but she was understanding and granted me a short extension. (I never said she was a pushover.) I'm not sure of the timing but I wonder if the new due date coincided with a break in the school calendar (Thanksgiving, maybe?), because I remember having to mail it, and sticking a post-it note to the paper thanking her (but trying not to sound like a suck-up) before I folded it and stuffed it into an envelope.

The turning point was my analysis of "The Pardoner's Tale" from Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. I got an A- and Mrs. M. gave me such positive comments that finally I started to feel confident as a writer. I was still working on my novel in isolation, but it really started taking off. My senior year, Honors English wasn't offered, and I was too nervous to withstand the pressure of AP English, so I dropped down to "regular" English. Other than The Great Gatsby, it was dead boring. I dashed off "A" papers in one night. I had to promise myself that if I took care of my homework right away, I could work on my novel. It was a good deal.

A chance meeting in a study hall connected me with a classmate, J., who was a heavy science fiction/fantasy reader. We became good friends, and I had fun parceling out my novel chapter by chapter for her to devour. She caught up so fast that at one point she was reading it just as soon as I was drafting it. One of my favorite moments was the morning she came tearing down the hallway toward my locker--she always had a flair for the dramatic--demanding, "Who is this 'Aras' person, and why is he there?" This sort of reaction always thrills an author. It should, anyway.

I was reminded of Mrs. M. this weekend because I found her obituary in the Sunday paper. She was the same age as my dad. Cancer. (Shout out to my Pints Posse--CCFOAD.) Cancer also took my friend J. It will be five years in October, the day before my birthday. They were strong influences on my development as a writer. Though silent now, they continue to inspire me today.


Nina said…
So many people have helped me academically. I am glad you found teachers that believe in you, too.
nightfly said…
You never forget a Mrs. M, or J, or (in my case) Ms. C (fourth grade) and Prof. W (Rutgers, sophomore year). Bless them all. And cancer can seriously FTFOAD.
Maggie May said…
I'm sorry for your losses...but not for the mark they left on your life. When you finish that novel, it will be legacy for them as well as you, and that is just, for lack of a better word, awesome.
Kate P said…
Nina--Nice to see you! Yes, it really is something to get that encouragement and you actually start seeing in yourself what they knew was there.

'Fly--so true. I told my mom about one of the funniest things Mrs. M said. She handed out candy that she'd brought back from a trip to England, and then she put on the Pride & Prejudice movie (we'd been reading the book), which meant turning out the lights. Immediately after the lights went down, I heard her quip: "Oh, dear, now I've fed you sugar and put you in the dark." I think she was afraid we'd crash!

MM--Aw, thanks. You're right. J's name will be on that dedication page.

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