I often think about the people who made me.
I don’t mean my mom and dad. Jeez, mind out of the gutter, please. That’s not a mental image I want! Ack! Stop thinking about that! Ew ew ew. Okay, seriously, what I mean is the people who helped make me into the writer I am today. There are a lot of people I could talk about — I had encouraging parents and family who thought I was talented — but two people really stand out.
Janice Morgan taught ninth grade English, and in her class I should have been the star pupil. I aced nearly every exam. I read and understood the literature probably better than anyone in the class. I was the kind of kid who always wanted to keep his lit book at the end of the year … except for that year. I remember a looooooooong section on Flowers for Algernon, although let’s face it — two sentences on Flowers begins to be too long.
I was, however, adamant about not doing homework. I hated homework. I saw no need for it. In fact I had something of a narcissistic view: THOSE people might need homework, but by God I was special. It was a rare moment in junior high and high school when I cared enough to turn in homework. I was satisfied with crushing the tests.
I liked Mrs. Morgan, though, and as such I showed her some stories and poems I’d written. At the time I was enamored with Stephen King, and so everything I wrote would probably result in a hastily called parent-teacher conference nowadays. Mrs. Morgan was encouraging. In fact, she chose me to be the school’s representative at a ‘young author’s conference’ in a nearby town. I was allowed to exhibit two pieces, so I chose my most carefully crafted poem and a short story I really liked.
I also remember a couple of silly writing seminars from there that I didn’t take very seriously. In those days I had an extreme “I am better than you” attitude, which masked a whole hell of a lot of insecurities. That false pride wouldn’t let me take anything seriously. I wish I’d understood better back then that I should have been laying the groundwork for a real writing career.
Anyway, Janice Morgan also took a huge chance on me by placing me on the school’s English team for a regional competition. I came back with a first-place trophy in the vocabulary competition and an honorable mention in the essay-writing competition. I disagreed with that assessment. I should have won first place in both, dammit. Again, that was my unchecked ego.
But Mrs. Morgan was the first person outside of my immediate family who believed in me and thought I had talent. I appreciated that so much, and I still remember her fondly. I also remember that she was extremely fair. While she thought I was talented, she was hard-nosed about homework. I won awards and got to go on trips — but I also only scraped by with a D.
Imagine what I could have done if I’d applied myself. (And yes, I know I’m echoing words she actually said to me many times. Often on a daily basis.)
Dr. John Strength was another huge influence on me. Senior English with him was a breeze, but he challenged me, too. I discovered poets I’d dismissed (Shelley, Byron, Keats), and got huge encouragement to break out of the reading rut in which I’d stuck myself. I still remember Byron’s Stanzas Written on the Road Between Florence and Pisa in its entirety, and could recite it on command if the need ever arose.
No, I don’t know why or how the need might arise. I’m just saying I could do it.
He also pushed me to be a better writer, to give concrete examples in my expository essays, to embrace description and find beauty in the proper and well-timed use of words. I owe him a debt that won’t ever be repaid, unfortunately. An ugly, ungainly blog entry like this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to really saying thanks.
If you write, there are people like Janice Morgan and John Strength in your life — people who helped lay the groundwork for the writer you’ve become. Spend a few words to say thank you, if you can.