Monday, March 23, 2009

Third-Grade Lessons

When I was a kid, I didn't always like to go outside during recess. Dorky from an early age, I know.

I begged my teachers, asking to stay inside and write. More often than not, my teachers of my earlier years - first and second grade - insisted I go out each and every day; you know, fresh air, physical activity, and all that jazz.

But in the third grade, my teacher - Mrs. Engle - let me spend a couple days inside to write. The stories I wrote generally revolved around ghosts. My best one, that I still keep in a pocket folder decorated in pink, purple, and green, is about a girl who discovers that a ghost lives in one of her books. Then there were the days that I didn't know what to write about; to solve this dilemma, I marched over to the classroom's library, chose an encyclopedia at random, flipped open the heavy book, and wrote a quick story about whatever entry I happened to land on. The most difficult one, I remember, was about the "sun".

I was scribbling one of these stories, on looseleaf lined paper, when Mrs. Engle approached me one day. She sat down in one of the small chairs and huddled over the table where I patiently worked.

"How would you like to start a writing group?" she asked.

I was totally game. The idea of sharing stories and working together with my friends to create stories sounded like fun. It was optional for everyone in my class, and, surprisingly to me, a handful of other kids were willing to forgo their Friday recess to join in. It was the first time I was able to share my passion for writing, and I have Mrs. Engle to thank. I owe her even more thanks than that though.

Back then, adults often asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I honestly answered, "a famous novelist," and I'd often get a smirk or a laugh, or something else that equally showed they didn't take that dream seriously.

But Mrs. Engle did. She was the first - and one of the few elementary school teachers of mine - who believed I could do something with my writing.

After elementary school, I continued to write, but my interests grew and expanded, and I slowly found myself writing less often. By the time I reached high school, I wasn't writing anything (save for in my diary).

I started volunteer tutoring at some of the local elementary schools, and when I was 16, I was taken back to my old school. One day, after finishing up some English tutoring with a student, I was roaming the halls with a friend, as we reminisced about our years there, when we ran into Mrs. Engle.

The first question that passed her lips was: "Are you still writing?"

Ashamed, I told her I wasn't.

She asked why, and a conversation ensued about writing every day and working towards my goals of one day writing a novel. Even when you feel like you don't have anything to write about, she told me, sit down and try - like I used to do with that encyclopedia. You can't fulfill your dreams of writing, of becoming a novelist, if you don't try.

Not too long after this conversation, I set to work on my first novel. While this novel never got published, it did get written when I was sixteen years old. Plus, it taught me how to go about writing a novel, from creating outlines to sending queries out to agents, and I truly believe that I wouldn't have learned any of this had it not been for the encouragement of my third-grade teacher.

No comments: