Organizing my office usually dissolves rather quickly into sitting on the floor as I read though old letters, articles and journals. During a recent clean-up I came upon a thick folder of compositions from high school. I can say this; there is no way to overstate how large and loopy my handwriting was back in high school. But reading through the pages, I can see the early traces of my writer's voice straining through the bad spelling and overuse of adjectives.
I read through comments from teachers, praising my writing and sense of humor and chastising my spelling. The papers have big red 100s written on top of each one. I wasn’t always a great student, in fact I was often slapped with the label ‘underachiever,’ but I got A's in English Comp. Always. That is, until senior year when I landed in Mr. Mortimer's class.
I wasn't exactly what you’d call a ‘hand things in on time’ kinda gal, but other teachers let this slide. As they said; "Reading your paper was a breath of fresh air," "Thank you for the laugh, Laurie," and "This is the best one yet." But instead of glowing praise, Mr. Mortimer's papers came back marked: 'Late 1 day,' 'Late 2 days,' 'Late 3 days,' with ten points deducted for each day late.
On one he wrote, "70/100 Laurie, you write so well. I just wish I could get you to take it more seriously so I didn't have to put these grades on your papers." I remember thinking, HE's annoyed by the grades? This class was supposed to be my easy A. I can still feel the faint strands of resentment as I read through his (valid) suggestions for improvement and scant praise. And then, I find it. On the back of my final assignment this handwritten note to me:
I don't say that you must pursue writing as a career because it is a tough field to make a living in. But you must write. You have developed an excellent sense of diction and timing. I wish I could take credit for helping but, alas, I know better. Anyway, even if you have fourteen children and are pregnant with twins, you can still write and sell on the freelance market. Don't let anyone destroy your style. Listen, evaluate, take suggestions, but don't quit and don' t change unless you are convinced it is a change to improve. Find your subject, become intimate with it, and then write about it. You've got potential. Now do you have desire and drive?
The pages are yellowed, but the power of that letter reaches forward through the years and still has an impact on me. I wish to respond:
Dear Mr. Mortimer,
Thank you for challenging me and inspiring me and especially for pushing me to take my writing seriously. Over the years I've developed that discipline I needed and you weren't kidding about how important it is. Deadlines really do matter. Publishing can be brutal but my love for writing hasn't diminished. Thank you for encouraging me to pursue it. I still adore that image of my future-writer-self with all those kids running around. (I just have the two, but it often feels like more.) Your open-ended letter pushes me to the page wanting to prove; Yes, I do have the desire. Yes, I do have the drive. Mr. Mortimer, THANK YOU for drawing it out of me.