Saturday, October 15, 2011
He Was A Jerk
I thought I would be a writer.
Or a choreographer. Or an actress.
Or mostly a writer.
I was 15 with a lot of choices to make.
At 12 I had dreamed up a story for children. The characters lived in my back pocket and I'd pull them out often to pen a moment. I had a stack of stories with more ideas crackling through all the time.
This stack of stories made me very nervous. I wanted to be a writer, but I also wanted to be good. A good writer.
My mother told me that the things I wrote were wonderful, but this is what mothers say. I was 15 and I wanted substantial literary evaluation, so I turned to the most authoritative source I knew on the matter. Mr. Davis, my ninth grade English teacher.
His classroom in the middle of Hall A was a portal into the backwoods of Georgia. Displayed on the walls were two mounted deer heads, a stuffed squirrel, a pheasant, a wild boar AND a full sized coyote beside the file cabinet. I often wondered if he kept them there because he needed to affirm his manhood to his English students. Now I just think that his wife must have hated them.
That year I trudged through the masculine curriculum choices of The Old Man and the Sea, A River Runs Through It, Farenheit 451 and Romeo and Juliet. ( Not so manly, but lots of bloodshed.)
At the end of the year I had stored up enough courage to show my writing to another. I printed off a few pages, a short story, and stapled together the corner. One afternoon I slid my heart across Mr. Davis' desk.
"When you get some time I'd love to know what you think."
It was one of the bravest things I had ever done.
Days went by. Then weeks. My heart drooped and drained of life.
At last, on the final day of school, I paused in the doorway after class, waiting for all the other students to skip down the hallway.
"Mr. Davis..." I could not steady the waiver, "Have you had a chance to read my story?"
He nodded, as if I had asked him if he'd like fries with that.
"It's fine," he said in his slow drawl. "But you've got lots of time. Why don't you take your time, settle down, have a few babies then see how you feel about it when you're grown?"
The shock bled through my face gradually. I fought the tears down that long stretch of hallway. I wanted to glance back to see if I was leaving a trail of shame on the linoleum, but I didn't want him to see my weakness.
The most authoritative literary expert in my life just told me I was a lousy writer.
Or so I believed.
I grew convinced that little would ever come of my words and I could not risk more humiliation. But like any true writer I could not help but write. The writing became my secret, though. No one would see it again.
Around this time I became increasingly enamored with Emily Dickinson. I imagined one day after my quietly unusual death people finding trunks of stories stashed in my bedroom. I would never have to know how they were received. Death is a good barrier to criticism.
I would have hidden my words forever if it had not been for Africa. At 20 I started showing my words again for the sake of my children. These stories of children and their needs compelled me to pull back the curtain and express. Their potential gain from them far outweighed any potential criticism I might face.
Slowly I grew beave again. Slowly, as I fought to suppress the words of Mr. Davis, I grew bolder. Because all these years later I still hear them. I still see his profile in the doorway. I still wonder if I am embarrassing myself by trying.
Criticism weighs so much more than encouragement. I sinks to the bottom of us and latches on to our guts. It is not easily dislodged. We are prone to believe the negative things said of us more than the kind things. At least I am.
What I realized as a grown woman was that Mr. Davis never said a single word about my writing. He told me what he thought I should do with my life. He was prescribing a destiny for me based on a narrow box he penned all women into. That year we never read a book by a female author.
It wasn't me. It was him. He was the one with the problem. Because even if my words had not been excellent he could have offered me feedback and specific advice related to my efforts. He could have handed back my papers marked up in red pen showing the strong parts and the weak parts. Because criticism is a healthy part of growth, healthy criticism that is thoughtful, offered with the intent to benefit.
Mr. Davis gave me nothing but a chauvinist's stereotype, but I took it as an evaluation of my value.
I haven't been very successful at having babies, Mr. Davis. But I am starting to believe, despite what you said that maybe, just maybe, my words might mean something.