A Lesson To Be Grateful For - Maryanne Fantalis

Sometimes, what feels like a bad experience at the time can turn out to be a really good life lesson.

I disliked my ninth grade English teacher immensely. I don't think any of us liked her. She was a gruff, harsh person with a difficult personality and she wasn't a particularly good teacher, as I recall (of course, what does a ninth grader know about what makes a good teacher? but I think I'm right on this one)

She gave us a simple assignment: write a book report on a book of our choice by answering questions she gave us on a sheet of paper (fondly remembered by Gen Xers like me as a ditto sheet). No essay, no intro and conclusion, no transitions. Easy peasy.

Except this is me. I'm a writer, even then, and a voracious reader. The book I chose to write about was Watership Down by Richard Adams, a tome of more than 400 pages. I had read the book more than  four times by then. And what's this about short answers? A handful of lines, to answer questions about this amazing, complex, magnificent book? Ha! I've already written an entire TV series in my spare time, lady. You have no idea!

I did the report. But I was going to show her. I was not going to be limited by a miserable handful of lines when there was a whole book to write about. Surely, she must see that. Short answers were for little minds and small books. So I wrote in between the lines, and up the sides of the page, and on the back of the page. Because I HAD TO!

You see where this is going, right?

I got a 77.

The fact that I still remember that number should give you an idea of how infrequently I saw such grades. 

I was horrified. How dare she? I had written a great report about a great book. In fact, I had done more than she asked for! If there were any flaws, it was because of the stupid format of the stupid assignment!

I was not then a confrontational person -- I still am not, though I have a lot more confidence now -- but this grade could not stand. I went up to her desk after class and asked her about it.

As I remember it, she roared and snapped and breathed fire, dragon-lady that she was, but what I walked away with was this message: Following the instructions was part of the assignment, and you didn't follow the instructions.

I think she let me redo it. I don't know, I don't remember, and I have no idea what my new grade was, if there was one.

But the fact that I still remember this one assignment from *mumble* years ago when I was fourteen tells you how important that lesson was.

Follow the damn rules. Get it right. When an agent says "one page synopsis" or "attach ten pages" or "submit no more than 1000 words," I know I'd damn well better comply.

I am grateful to the dragon-lady for teaching me, quite vividly, that the rules do matter.

And also that I can have more of an ego when it comes to my writing than I like to think.


  1. I tended to like the tough teachers like that. Odd duck here! :-)

    1. Mary, me too! My favorite teachers have always been the ones who challenged me (this particular teacher excepted).

  2. Did we go to the same school? ;-) I think I had a teacher like that too. *sigh* But yes, good life lesson. And great post! :)


Post a Comment