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