Friday, September 24, 2010

What Was the First Thing You Wrote That Got Noticed?

I was in my attic office this morning (this office, which I can't work in as the top floor of our house is being renovated, is a fantastic mess of books and writing, a crazy professor's lair), and I happened to find the first piece I wrote that made a teacher say, "You're going to be a writer."

To be honest, before I was told this--in an ominous tone by a woman who frankly scared the hell out of me--I hadn't consciously considered becoming a writer. 

I had always been creative, sure, but I was such a lost kid that I never really thought about the future. I still don't really think of it. I just keep trying to create things, day by day. But I liked to read, and I was decent at writing; I just never really put 2+2 together. Until then.

When I was a sophomore in high school (I went to an excellent girls' high school before switching to public because I thought the scenery change would do me good), I wrote this weird little piece, later published in the 1987 edition of "Windward," the Kent Place School's literary magazine. 

My demanding, exacting, humorless English teacher, whose name I forget, but whose words and face still live in my mind, submitted it for me. To my tremendous surprise, they published it:


Looking down at her feet, she thought, "God, my L.L. Bean seven-inch Maine Hunting Shoes are so cool." Clunky and tough, with brown rubber bottoms and tan leather uppers, they seemed to smile at her. Or maybe that was the strip of light rubber connecting the shoe to the sole. It didn't matter. "I love my boots." She said it aloud. True, they made her feet sweat profusely, and she walked strangely when she wore them, but they had chain tread soles. She was in awe. They were a masterpiece. Although she barely ever hunted in Maine, she felt they were the perfect shoe. Wear with everything, bulletproof, won't slide on ice. They gave her clothes that "just back from the fox-hunt" look--classic, timeless. When they'd first arrived from Freeport, she had torn open the box, tossed the boots into the oven, and then lovingly applied the entire packet of Sno-Seal.  She wore them to bed.  She wore them to church. Their huge toes made it difficult to walk out of the pews, but didn't suffering make you a better person?  She loved those boots. They were so roomy she could fit four pairs of Ragg socks on with them.  How convenient!  Bending down, she planted soft kisses on each foot's upturned brown toe.  
"Goodnight," she whispered.

--Elizabeth Collins

I don't really know why I wrote this strange, satirical little ditty. I must have given it to my English teacher as part of some homework that I had pretended to do.  Or maybe I did do my homework for once (I would later do my homework like a good girl, but middle school, freshman and sophomore years were spotty homework times). because it was a fun sort of homework. 

I handed this piece in--inspired, no doubt, by Puritan New England (we had just read Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel, The Scarlet Letter, which I rather hated back then; I later realized I don't hate the book; it's a very good book, beautifully written and imagined by Hawthorne, but I do sincerely hate the Puritans. They gave me the creeps back then, and they still do. In fact, I am horrified by anything that reminds me of the cruel and hyper-judgmental Calvinists)--and then I forgot about it.

Soon afterward, teachers I didn't even know started stopping me in the hallway. "I loved your writing," they said to me--and honestly, I wasn't quite sure what they were talking about. "Brilliant satire! So funny! Read it three times already!" they said.  

And then, my own teacher, my English teacher, who often asked complicated questions that required sophisticated critical thinking and articulation of the finer points of literature, and, almost daily, it seemed, stared down her long nose at me and intoned, "I. Think. Not," said, "Do you know what you are, Elizabeth? I will tell you. You are a writer. You are going to be a writer. And this piece," she handed it back to me, "is how I know that is true."

My scary English teacher smiled, which I am quite sure I had never seen her do before. I took my weird, non-story and left the room (having been called in for a private conference, which was semi-terrifying), sort of shaking my head, both confused that she suddenly liked my schoolwork and grateful that she believed in me.

What I know now is that it doesn't take much, sometimes, to see the potential in students. I can see even in e-mail notes that someone has a gift for words. One thing I always do is try to encourage that gift when I see it. 

After all, we often do not even know what we can become until someone else tells us.


  1. Powerful! You make a good case for how much one comment by one teacher can influence a student. I just read about your situation on the Ed Tech blog, and I want you to know you have the support of many teachers, including myself. Your situation is a bit Scarlet Letter, is it not? I don't mean in the obvious way, but rather, in the Puritanical fingerpointing behind it. All the best from us in Malvern.

  2. Thanks for your note. Yes, I see what you are saying, and therein lies my inability to deal with provincialism"--it all comes back to The Scarlet Letter!



  3. In support, here's a YouTube video that is short, PG, and safe for all but the most uptight workplaces.

    I can say that my earliest "Aha!" moment was when my 6th grade math teacher made me stay after school and take the same math test over and over until I got every question correct. That was when my schoolwork started to lose the sloppy "I don't need to try" attitude. I realised that she not only cared about what I wasn't accomplishing, but that I was capable of so much more.

  4. Thanks, Jim. Great video, by the way. Timely, to be sure, because (as I've said before; this really bugs me), many people rip on teachers or unduly harass teachers, and they have no idea what it takes and what a calling it is (or should be).