I hope you don’t think of me as a ruthless taskmaster of a teacher. But looking back over my decades of teaching, I realized something sad. I make my students cry.
I don’t mean to. Please indulge me a moment to roll a mental video so that I can explain.
Picture an old school TV sitcom in which the main character, a girl, wears many disguises. Maybe she has overbooked the night with too dates lined up. She can’t make up her mind which one she likes best, so goes out with all of them at the same time and meets them at the corner grill.
She starts off with Date #1, Mr. Football Player, a guy who digs chicks who can talk an iso-blocking scheme and a corner blitz. She snuggles in her favorite oversized NCAA jacket and meets him at a table. She spends the next 15 minutes reliving last night’s game, play by play. She doesn’t have to talk because he’s forgotten she’s there. The guy comes up for air, and she excuses herself from the table and says she has to go to the little girls’ room.
She rushes in the door, throws the football jacket in a corner, and pulls a peace sign out of her pocket. She slips it over the psychedelic tie-dye shirt she’s been wearing under the jacket. She kicks off her shoes and slips on the flip flops tucked away in her backpack. She’s off to meet Date #2, Lyric Man.
He waits for her at a table on the patio under the stars. Coincidentally, he has his guitar with him. He always has his guitar with him. And together they write a song on an old napkin. Then he sings it to her. The emotion is too great, and she runs to the bathroom.
As soon as she enters, she slips on the jacket again. Changes shoes and digs through the backpack for her brother’s old laptop. Doesn’t matter what she wears as long as she has the computer. She searches the outer edges of the restaurant for the guy who’s wired—Captain Geek Squad.
There he is. He’s plugged in the only available outlet. Gotta save the battery. He’s not worried she’s late. He’s got Wi-Fi. She shows him her PC and says she’s thinking about converting. He weeps. Then he launches into a deep emotional discussion of the benefits of owning a Mac vs. PC. He talks until a friend texts him with a problem—the blue screen of death. Captain Geek Squad has no other choice but to console his buddy, and she takes advantage of the situation and rushes to the bathroom.
You know what happens next. Our protagonist runs herself ragged switching from one date to another. She finally blows her cover when she wears her peace sign and tie-dye with the football player, hands Lyric Man the computer, and tells Captain Geek Squad she runs a Power I instead of Windows 7.
I can relate. But my identity crisis centers around writing.
When I’m a sociology teacher, I’m laid back, but I follow the rules. “Yes, start with a topic sentence so the reader knows what you’re talking about. How many sentences? Oh, I don’t know—maybe four or five. Whatever. Just do a good job of proving your opinion. State some facts.”
When I’m a junior English teacher, I preach writing assessment. “Five paragraphs! You can’t possibly write an essay without five paragraphs. Where’s your hook? You can’t score a 6 without your hook!”
When I become English teacher at large, I speak only in Shakespearean sonnets, and I turn up my nose at persons who split an infinitive or use a nominative case preposition where an objective case pronoun should go.
When I play college teacher, I’m become the Grim Reaper of Comma Usage. Instead of a scythe, I carry a red ink pen and yellow highlighter. Can’t you hear my eerie laughter as I spout off Little Brown’s comma rules? 25A, compound sentence! 25B, introductory elements! 25J, no unnecessary commas. NO UNNECESSARY COMMAS! Ba ha ha ha ha. (Evil laugh.)
When I merge from death mode and become a journalism teacher, I bury my attributes, one by one. And, by the way, no, we DON’T put a comma before the conjunction in a series of items.
And then I go home and write. And I cry, just like my students. I thought I was a pretty good writer until I tried something new—writing fiction. Writing is hard. It’s like a puzzle; all the pieces have to fit. There are rules. You can’t cut off the edges and force a piece to fit.
You can’t teach a person to become a good writer. You can only provide the opportunities.
Academic writing is easiest for me. I can’t remember ever failing at academic writing. In fact, a few days ago I ran wildly through the house, screaming with joy because I Googled my name and found a professor who praised one of my academic articles that appeared in a book that was published last year. I wrote the article decades ago. I’ve learned so much more since then.
But it hasn’t come easy. I write every day. I’ve learned that only a fool turns his or her head to wisdom. I glean wisdom from other writers who have paid their dues. It probably didn’t come easy for them either.
Yet a lot of my students think it should.
They tell me how stupid academic writing is, how it stifles their creativity. Their pride takes a major hit when I splash their paper with red ink and tell them to revise.
I’ve been there. It hurts. As I said, I thought I knew something about writing—until I started writing a novel.
My students offer excuses. “I just can’t write if I’m told what to write.” “I have to have a deadline.” “Academic writing isn’t writing. There are too many rules.” “I’d rather write songs or poems. I need to express myself.”
What my poor, sweet, innocent students don’t realize is that all writing has rules. All writing—except writing for personal blogs or journals. You can pretty much get away with anything that you allow yourself, but then you’re writing for an audience of one—yourself. (If you’re writing for an audience of One, God–that’s a different story.) Generally, we have a need to connect with other people, and we can do that with our writing. Our blog writing can turn into professional blog writing, a ministry, a launch pad to devotional writing, etc. But there are rules. The key to effective writing is discipline.
Creative writing sounds easy. Want to know a secret? Creative writing is the most difficult type of writing I’ve ever pursued in my life—both in writing novels and writing songs. I have a LONG way to go in songwriting. That’s a different story.
I make my students cry because I make them “toe the line.”
Conforming to a standard isn’t easy. I know. I’ve wanted to give up too. I’ve thrown things. I’ve said ugly words. (But I haven’t written them.) I have grown. I have gotten better.
I hold my students accountable—even if they cry—because, like me, I know they can do better too. I can’t give them the ability. They have to find it within themselves through opportunity, and opportunity comes with practice, practice, practice.
Sometimes they come to a writing opportunity wearing “the wrong attire”—similar to the girl with the three dates. It’s inevitable. They’re going to end up frazzled unless they can write to their audience. I can’t help them if they refuse to change. It’s foolish to argue with stubborn pride.
By now, you know I’m a conundrum—wacky one minute and OCD serious the next. But here’s one thing you should know. I let down my guard with a person who tells me the truth—somebody I can trust, somebody who tells me I need to “toe the line.” And I, the psycho writer chick, almost never let down my guard.
And dear student, if by chance, you read this. Know I am your biggest fan. I believe with all my heart you will make it—if only you don’t give up. I’ll cry with you if I you want me to. Let down your guard. Believe me when I tell you that you can do it. Together we can “toe the line.”