Short and Sweet

My son is in a situation right now where he doesn’t really mesh with the teaching style of one of his teachers, and consequently, his grades in that class are not what they should be.   This is one of those “life lessons” moments you really hate as a parent, because you can say whatever you want about having to do your best work in difficult circumstances in life but your kid isn’t going to think:  “Wow, my mom is so much more mature and experienced than I am, and I should totally listen to what she says.”  Your kid thinks, “I don’t like this class, and I’m not going to do the work.  So there.”

But there are lessons to be learned from even the worst teacher-student relationships, as I’m sure many of you can attest. 

Here’s an example.  My ninth grade English teacher, who was harsh and unlikeable, gave us a simple assignment:  a book report in which we had to answer her questions on one side of a page.  Piece of cake, right?

I chose my favorite book at the time, “Watership Down,” a tome of just over 400 pages that I knew like the back of my hand.  The only problem was, it was really hard to compress 400 pages into those three tiny lines she gave us to answer questions like “Describe the main action of the plot” or “What is the turning point of the story?”  So I squeeeeeeezed extra words into the margins and in between the lines and even onto the back.  Because I HAD TO. 

She gave me a 77.

The fact that I remember this will tell you what my grades usually were.

I was appalled.  How dare she?  I had written a great book report about a great book.  I did more than the stupid assignment called for. 

I crept up to her desk — remember, she was a dragon-lady and I was a meek, make-no-waves kid — to ask about the grade.

As I remember it, she roared and snapped and breathed fire, dragon-lady that she was, but this was the gist of what she said:  I get that you know the book really well, but you didn’t follow the instructions, and following the instructions was part of the assignment too. 

My irritation lingered, but deep down, I understood.

I’m not saying that I never made that mistake again.  It’s not like a wisdom lightbulb went off over my head and I’ve been perfect ever since.  You don’t learn something all at once and for all time.  That’s a big lie perpetrated by feel-good Hollywood movies and “message” YA fiction. 

But I heard her loud and clear, and as much as I disliked her, the lesson stuck, and it got stickier with time.

It comes back to me frequently when I have to write a query according to an agent’s guidelines.  Or a three-page synopsis.  Or a two-sentence pitch.

Keep it short.  Keep it within the lines.  Play by the rules, or you don’t get to play. 

I’m hoping that there’s a lesson in this situation for my son.  Besides the fact that his mother is right.

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One Response to Short and Sweet

  1. freew says:

    Reminds me of Diane Fortuna at Stony Brook. The most painful American Literature life lesson that made the biggest impact on my writing and teaching. She even made us go to her house for tutoring. I cannot describe the pain she put me through at 19 and yet still recollect her voice, in English, French and Italian. She taught me to expect no less than excellence. I agree the most lasting life lessons sometimes require pain.

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