My favorite teacher? The one who flunked me

By Ned Hickson, editor/Siuslaw News

Admittedly, I had a bit of a crush on my College Prep English teacher, Mrs. Fillers, who was young, inventive and extremely encouraging to the only freshman in her class of 25 juniors and seniors.

The first semester was a breeze as she allowed us to explore creative writing with few boundaries. Each week, along with our reading assignments, we were given a new list of 20 vocabulary words — usually with a theme — that we were required to use in a story. Most of my classmates crammed as many of those words into a single sentence as they could (The decrepit, cantankerous, ill-tempered man raised his wrinkled, weathered, sallow fist in a show of furious and frustrated rage over losing his car keys…”)

I, on the other hand, fleshed out 15 to 20 pages of handwritten storyline, usually with the last five to six pages devoid of vocabulary words.

I got good grades but, as you can probably imagine, was rarely asked to read my stories in class due to the time constraints of a 45-minute period.

Throughout that semester, I noticed strange red marks on my pages with comments like “incomplete sentence,” “check spelling,” “punctuation needs work.”

As a result, I’d get “A+” for content and creativity but “D” for mechanics.
My thinking was, Who cares about mechanics when the story is so great?

Mrs. Fillers did.

As we headed into the second semester, she took me aside and told me that raw talent wasn’t enough, and that I needed to learn the tools of writing if I wanted to get serious. She described my writing as something similar to chainsaw sculpture: Creative and interesting, but it would never be Michaelengelo unless I learned the tools needed to smooth the edges into something seamless.

I listened carefully to her advice and then, like any teenager, disregarded everything except that part about having “raw talent.”

Surely that was enough.

However, in the weeks ahead I realized it wasn’t nearly enough in the eyes of Mrs.

Fillers. I began to fail miserably on my assignments, which had shifted from creativity to the analysis of writing pros and recognizing the mechanics and devices used by writers like Shakespeare, Hawthorne, Hemingway, Emerson…

…Blah, blah, blah.

When the final grades were given, I went from having a crush on my teacher to being crushed by her and the “F” on my report card — something I had never received before.

Well, not for English.

At that point, I had learned our family was moving to Florence and I’d be attending a new school whose name I couldn’t yet pronounce. With that in mind, I went to Mrs. Fillers and told her how unfair I felt my grade was, and that I’m sure my new school and its teachers would be better.

To this day, I still get knots in my stomach when I think about what I said, and how visibly upset she was by my hurtful words.

My sophomore year at Siuslaw, I was enrolled in College Prep English once again. For our first assignment, Mr. Danielson asked us to write an essay titled “At My House.”

We were given no further instruction other than it being due the following day. When I turned in my five-page essay, I felt I was off to a good start with a teacher who would surely overlook the petty details of mechanics and grammar in favor of creativity.

When he handed back our assignments, he had written the following comment: “A+ for enthusiasm/D+ for mechanics. What are you trying to say with your essay?”

It seemed there was no escaping what I eventually came to realize were the demands of engaged teachers unwilling to bend at the expense of a student’s potential.

Mr. Danielson taught me about essay format and the need to have a logical beginning, middle and end — and that energy and enthusiasm are wasted if they aren’t given a direction that readers can follow.

He remains one of my favorite and most influential teachers. But I also know, if not for Mrs. Fillers’ willingness to teach me an even more important lesson about writing, I may not have recognized what Mr. Danielson had to offer me.

During National Teachers Appreciation Week (April 8-12), I hope you’ll join me in recognizing the educators in our community whose influence in our lives go well beyond our time in the classroom.

And Mrs. Fillers, if you somehow ever read this…

Thank you for the “F” that changed everything.

______________________________________________

 

Write Siuslaw News editor Ned Hickson at nhickson@thesiuslaw news.com or P.O. Box 10, Florence, Ore. 97439, or visit www.thesiuslawnews.com

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26 thoughts on “My favorite teacher? The one who flunked me

  1. What a wonderful post and your mechanics were excellent. I’d give you an A+, both for inspiration and structure. 🙂
    Isn’t it amazing how much influence our early educators have on us. I enjoyed reading this.

    • Thanks so much, Miriam. And you’re so right about those early teachers. My wife and I were talking about it this morning, and both of us could name all of our teachers from kindergarten through 8th grade, plus many from high school. And not just the ones we were a little sweet on… 😉

  2. A published writer I know, always claims that creativity is more important than mechanics. I have always believed mechanics is as important as creativity, but wondered if I was wrong because he is published and I am not. Over time I realised that the only reason I am not published is that while I have the mechanics, I don’t have creativity.
    Still, I strongly believe both creativity and mechanics are required for good writing.
    Nice appreciation of your teachers.

    • Thanks so much, and I have to disagree with your writer friend about creativity being more important than mechanics. If you know how to wield the tools of grammar and particularly punctuation, it enhances your telling of the story and the way it’s told. Without knowing how to use all the tools, you inadvertently set parameters and boundaries on your creativity. It’s like trying to communicate an idea in a foreign language by relying on a few words and phrases; you’re only going to be able to convey part of what you’re wanting to communicate.

  3. The most influential teachers we have aren’t necessarily the ones that gave us good grades. And as an old saying goes, there is no art without form. But the F sounds rather harsh, Mrs. Fillers should have at least given you a D- for effort.

  4. Offspring and I had this debate recently. He argued that his problem is that he “can’t come up with good ideas” and I had to laugh. Ideas are easy: everything that has ever happened to you or anyone you know (or know of) is non-fiction, and everything you’ve ever hoped for, wondered about, or worried about that didn’t actually happen is fiction. Boom. Tons of ideas! It’s the process; the organization, the structuring, the sometimes violent murder of phrases you’ve come to love because other people just won’t understand them the way you do – that’s the work, the reason your next favorite book is still driving its author to drink.

    It’s also incredibly unsexy to learn, which is why students flatly refuse to do so and teachers deserve summers off.

  5. I’ve heard this discussion many other times. Obviously, it is best to know grammar, punctuation and spelling so you can do it as you write without thinking. Some say that’s what editors are for, to correct your mistakes. I think you can be so inhibited by worrying about commas that you can’t write anything. If you let the words flow naturally as they come to you, it is always possible to go back and correct grammatical errors. I do believe the less an editor has to do, though, the more likely your work will be published.

    • Good points, Sheila. I also think the use of punctuation — particularly when used effectively to set pacing/timing for emphasis and mood — also helps define a writer’s voice.

  6. I’ve graduated from college, and my writing still has a lot of room for improvement. I appreciate the profs who were kind and supportive, and also the ones who sometimes pretty tough. and lavished a lot of red ink on my behalf. Like you, I was frustrated and angry when they failed to appreciate my brilliant thoughts, and wasted time pointing out my errors in grammar, lack of organization and coherency, illogical leaps, defiance of the laws of physics, and other such quibbles. The profs who took the time to talk to me, and to write out detailed criticisms and suggestions, are not always comfortable memories, but I do appreciate them. Another ten, twenty years, I’ll have cooled down, and maybe I’ll mention it to them.

  7. I’m sure most writers can relate! We tend to be more creative and less perfectionist. I am very lucky to be naturally good at the nitty-gritty’s, but my passion was definitely fueled by my high school Literature teacher, Mrs. Basson. She passed away a few years ago, but I know she would have been proud to know that after completing an Honours degree in Communications and dedicating 5 days a week to climbing the corporate ladder, my heart still saved a space for writing. Shout out to teachers – kid’s won’t always (or even never) show you appreciation, but oh do you leave a mark (even more prominent than red on white)!

  8. Standing and applauding. “Fail fast” is usually seen as an innovation philosophy, but it holds true here too: better to learn that lesson early and well. Which you clearly did. I hope Mrs. Fillers sees your post, too!

  9. The teachers, who are not yet jaded, really do care whether students are successful or not…. They need to hear how awesome they are sometimes. This last 2 semesters I had the same 2 teachers for US Govt/TX Govt and History I and II. They are 2 people who will forever be imprinted in my mind as well as a couple from high school. I made a point to tell both of them how awesome I thought they were and how much I felt I had learned from them.
    It made a difference to both of them to hear that from a sincere student! 🙂

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