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What Brought You to Where You Are?

I graduated with an English degree and, really, when I tell people about myself, most of the things I focus on explaining are my love for literature, my love for writing, and the fact that I recently graduated with a degree in English and two minors in writing.

I got to thinking the other day: How did I get here? Three years ago, I certainly would not have identified myself as a lover of literature, and I probably wouldn’t have told you I was considering getting an English degree (because I wasn’t). Ask me half my lifetime ago (11 years approximately) where I saw myself at 22, and I probably would have said “Becoming a doctor!” (Which is what I thought I wanted when I was little).

So, I want to go back… back back back to when I was 9 and getting ready to move with my family from California to Maine.

What did I think back then? I don’t quite remember, but I do recall being sad about leaving behind friends and worrying about my pet hamster, who was riding in her cage at my feet in the car.

One important detail: I was NOT hauling a box of books with me from California to Maine and I wasn’t reading books in the car to pass time–I colored, I stared out the window, I thought, but I was not going to read.

Fifth grade: the year that I believe changed the course of my life and placed me on the trail that I am on today.

English had always been entertaining for me (mostly because I liked to write and spell), but I didn’t much care for the reading part. When I started my fifth grade in Maine, I was not enthused about reading any books.

Somehow, the teacher I had that year made me want to read. I complained about it loudly whenever she announced a new book, but inside, I began to like reading. I vividly remember hiding under a desk during one free period. I had Hatchet and I eagerly sped through each chapter. When my teacher found me, she had a knowing smile and asked if I was enjoying the book. I said no.

It was this grade, this teacher, and the books she fed me that made me devour books. I started taking books out of the school library (a tiny little room lined with several shelves). I had never stepped foot inside a library until that year and I didn’t spend my free time reading until that year. Sure, maybe the crazy forcefulness with which I was thrown from one extreme environment (California) to another (Maine) may have pushed me to find something that allowed me to escape, that allowed me to put energy into something.

I continued to leave when I had to move to another town after that year. I spent so much time reading the fantasy novels I found on my father’s shelf. English continued to be my favorite class (I remember little else from sixth grade). It was also in sixth grade that I learned about Harry Potter. By this point, four of the seven had been released and I had read none of them. Why? Because even back then I was weary of anything so popular. Could it really be that good? It turns out it was. A friend dragged me to the midnight release of the first movie and the rest is history. One of my fondest memories is of sitting in a blue recliner reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire during the summer. It was warm and there was a nice breeze filtering through the windows. I just curled up in the seat of the chair, gripping the book because I didn’t want to let go.

It was the first book that really made me cry. I loved it. I loved that a book could make me feel that way. Sure, it made me sad, but it made me feel, and that, I thought, was magic.

We moved to another town, finally settling in. At this point, I was reading large fantasy novels (by Robert Jordan) that I had found on my dad’s bookshelf. I read them and I loved them. So much fantasy inspired me to write. I remember drawing out maps and making long outlines about what I wanted my book to do. But, just as now, I had trouble sticking to any one story. I had too many ideas (and most of them were not very good). However, the exercise of making characters and writing little scenes likely made me a better writer.

All of this reading and writing made me enthusiastic about my English classes most of the time.

Except eighth grade.

I had a teacher who really brought me to the brink. Looking back, if I had let her win, I probably would not have a blog, or two book shelves full of books, or an English degree. In eighth grade, a child can be impressionable. I was always adored by my English teachers because they could see that I enjoyed the writing (even when I didn’t enjoy the reading). They could see that I cared about the subject, that it tickled some portion of my brain in such a way that I could not release my interest on it.

This teacher shook my faith in English. Every book we read, we would discuss, and the interpretations I had were always the wrong ones, according to her. Each paper I wrote (though well written, she would say) had some fatal flaw that made it average. That year, we had to write a short story, and I chose to write a fantasy story. There was no genre we couldn’t touch. Some students did mystery, some did horror. I did fantasy because it was what I knew.

I wrote a story that was double the length required because I needed that much time to tell my story. She ripped it apart and told me that my plot was faulty, my themes were shallow, etc. Maybe she forgot that I was thirteen. What did she expect? Something award winning. This crushed me. The whole English class experience crushed me. I hated English. I feared going every day. I preferred math, a class in which I was praised.

That year, our English teacher would make a suggestion to the high school about what level English we should be in. I don’t know how much it influenced the ultimate decision, but I do know that I was placed in the average English class for ninth grade.

In ninth grade, my faith in English was renewed when my teacher made me enthusiastic again. She could not understand why I was in her class when she thought I was meant to be in honors. I pretended I did not understand it either. My ninth grade teacher likely helped fix most of what my eighth grade teacher broke down (except my faith in my fictional writing, which I still believe is not good).

The rest, really, is history. When I moved from Maine to New York, I used reading as a way to deal with the loss of good friends at such a tender age. I was lucky to get two of the best English teachers I ever had during my K-12 years: both helped foster my creative writing and encouraged me to read more and more. Both allowed me to take control of my own essays instead of following the essay prompts perfectly. They let me interpret what was asked of me, and that is what made them great teachers: they gave broad essay topics that were broad enough to support those who did not like English class, but also broad enough to make them interpretable by the students who really loved and thrived on English.

Although I still struggled with whether or not English was the right path for me, it may have been inevitable with all the supportive English teachers I had leading up to college (and in college as well). When I think of people I look up to, I think of English teachers and professors, not math teachers or science teachers. I always look to an English mentor and that is what brought me here to where I am.

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  1. December 4, 2012 at 6:33 PM

    I dare say that students in other disciplines may find parallels. Mentorship is very important!

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