Friday, January 20, 2012

The Lost Summer


When I was in high school, I was invited to attend a summer writing class that would include the so-called "most gifted" writers in that sprawling bureaucracy known as the Los Angeles Unified School District. Having designated yours truly as the sole and supposedly lucky nominee for our high school, members of the English department clearly expected me to be nothing but delighted by the news. Instead, I was resentful, completely against the idea of having to spend the entire summer in a classroom with a bunch of kids I didn't know and wouldn't see again. If this was the reward for being a good writer, maybe I had miscalculated in my efforts to excel in that area.

Of course, my parents were thrilled by what they saw as a great opportunity, and they insisted I attend. I complied with the most negative attitude imaginable, unhappy that I would be writing papers instead of swimming, going to the beach, and devouring every book I could get my hands on whilst lounging in my favorite air-conditioned corner of our home. All of my friends, excellent students in their own right, were free as the proverbial birds in trees to do all the fun things I should have been doing with them. I, on the other hand, was relegated to four walls, a desk, and a chalkboard...penalized for a talent I took for granted. What an honor. Blecch.

I did end up meeting a girl I really enjoyed, and we spent many covert moments passing a silly poem back and forth that began, "There's nothing so pleasant as a day in June, except...". As I recall, the first entry (hers) was "...a nun, buried in a sand dune." (Can you guess that my new friend attended Catholic school?) My oh-so-clever follow-up, I believe, was something about a child choking on a silver spoon. And so on (and on and on). You get the drift. Both of us were equally delighted to be there, and we expressed our displeasure with great maturity. Or not.

But let me proceed to the real point. It was in this class that the first B of my English career appeared at the top of my handwritten page. At first I was appalled, then humiliated, then indignant. How could I, arguably the best writer in my school, if not the entire universe (I was a modest child), receive anything but an A for my efforts? What was the guy thinking? What kind of crazy was he? And what was the world coming to, anyway?

When I went up after class and addressed these questions to a surprisingly patient teacher, he explained that my paper had wonderful mechanics, excellent vocabulary, solid ideas, and solid support for those ideas. What it lacked, he explained, was ME. I was pretty much phoning my product in, and he wasn't buying. Happily, this shocked me to the point that I actually heard him, and the message hit home. I was simply giving my teachers what they wanted, writing to meet their expectations, going through the motions. And strangely enough, it had never occurred to me to do more. These were just assignments, and I wasn't investing anything in them at all...no passion, no flair, and no creativity.

My friend, by the way, received an A on her paper. Reading it, I understood why. In fact, I learned the most valuable lesson of my writing career that summer...not to put pen to paper until I was feeling something...a proviso which applied to anything and everything I intended to put my name on, assigned or otherwise, essays as well as poetry. Writing from that place of feeling was not only possible, but necessary. The good stuff started in the gut, not the head.

Of course, I don't always write from that place. It comes and goes, even now. Sometimes the passion just isn't there, or it's buried so deeply I can't come up with it. That's when I use my head and not my heart.

It always shows.

22 comments:

Jocelyn Christensen said...

OOh, what a memory! I "felt" that post! :) I remember staying after school with a girl who would become my best friend to "learn" how to write poetry with my 2nd grade teacher! We loved it. My friend and I were so witty and fun together. We are still buddies...all of these years later. What became of your friend? Any idea?

Sue said...

Nope, it was just a fleeting friendship. We lived on opposite sides of the LA area, and that's a big distance divide.

I remember her well, though!

=)

Terra said...

I have trouble writing from my head, I do best writing from within. For me, when it comes from within, from some place inside of me, it is quick, it is good and other people connect with it on some level (that is, when I actually share it with others) when I am pushing myself to write something it takes days, weeks and I am never very happy with it...in most cases it lands in the trash and surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) sooner or later I will be in a position of feeling, and I will write something from within that mimicked, in a much better fashion, the thing I had been trying to force not so long ago...Sue I absolutely LOVED reading this story of yours and will likely remember it for quite some time - a gentle reminder to myself that what I feel is what I write and what I write is what I feel and that my friend is why I write.

Garden of Egan said...

I loved that post!
I can just "see" you now giggling and thinking you were getting away with your covertness.
Good for your parents for encouraging you to do something you didn't want to really do.
Look at you now.
I love reading your stories.

Polly Janos said...

What a lesson learned. My whole school career was "phoning in" my assignments. I was smart but only did the minimal work expected (still got all A's...how, I do not know)

Eva Gallant said...

Why am I not surprised that you were the best writer in your school?

Pondside said...

It shows, that you have been a writer from school days.
I often hit a block and then I'll be flooded with ideas - so many that if I don't write them down I lose them. Such a waste!

anitamombanita said...

It's good to be able to look back and see what lesson we were given from each challenge we were given...not going to the beach with friends in the summer is definitely a challenge! ;)

So glad that you're still writing...and from the heart.

I know when I'm shooting with my brain or shooting from the heart. I know it as soon as I push the shutter release (well, actually before)...but it does make all the difference.

Darlene said...

I love it when you write about the memories you have because I really do get to know you better. We shared a lot of things while you were growing up, but I've learned that there were things that we really didn't share too. That you were less than happy about going to class that summer, I was aware of, but didn't think you had such an enlightening of your spirit. Usually we get that kind of enlightening in a meeting or a class in church. Your teacher must have been exceptional to be able to read you so well from just a well written paper. I do think you learned a lot more than you thought you would that summer. You were able to see inside your soul, and not many are able to do that. At any rate, I'm glad you went and I'm sure that now you are too.

I love reading your blog on Fridays!

Lisalulu said...

A GREAT topic for a talk... 'Are You Just Phoning in Your Life?' going through the motions... saying what is expected or doing what is expected. (and also a great lesson)

Ames said...

Ah ha! I knew you were one of those "Gifted" people. You know sometimes adult who think they are looking out for a childs best interest don't take into account the child's feelings.

On the other hand, sometimes children don't know how they will benefit from those priviledges bestowed upon them until they are grownup and reflect back on those opportunities. ~Ames

karen said...

Oh, those early humbling experiences... they are a shock to the system aren't they? But we need them for improvement because our families (at least mine) will always think you're the biggest princess out there. We need the honest opinion of people who don't love us and/or have no ax to grind. I've had similar experiences with humility, only with the piano. And always just when I thought I was hot - only to find out I was not. Great story!

jen said...

I just left pondside's blog, and now your comment makes so much sense. And aptly describes her post, I might add. You're lucky you "heard." many gifted kids, in my experience, never hear.

Connie said...

Sue,
I hope you're one of the presenters at the story@home conference! I love your writing and your knowledge of writing. Great story.
Just to show you what level I was/am on, a friend and I sat in the back of a Child Development class at Weber State College and drew pictures that we passed back and forth. We got in the giggles and couldn't stop until our professor (are they called "professors" in a college?) asked us to please stop disrupting the class. It was very embarrassing. I'm still blaming my friend! ;)

yaya said...

Great memory! I sometimes feel like I'm having a conversation with my younger self when I go back in time to a particular moment and analyze it a bit...think about how I was feeling and what I'd say to me if I could go back there! You must write mostly from the heart because everything I've read of yours touches mine..have a great weekend..we're in the middle of a snowstorm and I'm so happy I can just sleep late in the morning and not have to drive in it!

Michelle said...

Love this, Sue. Gives me lots to think about in terms of the head-heart dance I dance with my writing.

Tima said...

Oh so true!Am trying to teach my kids about voice when they write. Only have a couple students who show this trait.

tidbitsandtreasures2011 said...

Talk about a life-changing moment. It's obvious this is a from-your-heart post. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Brian Miller said...

nice...a pretty cool bit of wisdom...loved the poem passing too ha....

Grandma Honey said...

How wonderful your teacher took the time to speak up. And look where you are now!

Kristin said...

OooOoo! Good lesson! I think you've got it down :)

Kristin

Caroline said...

This lesson can be applied to our lives in so many ways. I think that sometimes we DO just go through the mechanics of doing, producing in life and other times we really carry things out with passion.

I very much enjoyed this story.

And I might add, that your story about your friend and her cute little nun poem made me laugh so hard! We have some funny stories in my family that involve Catholic schools and nuns, as you can imagine! :) My father has an especially hilarious story about a nun forcing him to eat a sweet potato. It didn't end so wel--but it's a family classic! :))

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