Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Test I Never Took

When I was in college, there were very few required classes for graduation. You had to take certain types of classes, like a class with cultural diversity elements. But only a few classes were required by name. One of them was an upper-division general writing course.

I could have tested out of it: the test was purportedly very easy and I've always been good at that sort of exam. But I needed units and decided to just take the darn class instead of filling the slot with something more interesting, like cultural anthropology or domestication genetics. I took the writing course in the winter of my second year with an apathetic heart.

I arrived at the first class (indifferent as I was, I wasn't the type to miss lecture) with an expectant hopefulness that it would be better than I anticipated. A quick survey of the hall told me it wouldn't. It was full of fraternity hoodies, head-in-hands hangovers, and dark sunglasses hiding the telltale bloodshot eyes of those who were high. Everyone looked like they wanted to be somewhere else.

Our instructor was an enthusiastic grad student who knew full well we didn't want to be in her class and wasn't going to try to change our minds. In fact, her attitude was a mix of "I want you to learn something" and "I don't care how you feel about it." In hindsight, that was probably why she was so good.

She started us off with an in-class essay. Not graded, she said, but for her to see where we were at. The prompt was fairly interesting. The hour passed not quite as poorly as I expected.

In the following weeks she gave us articles on all sorts of topics, from organ donation, to food ethics, to cultural reactions toward climate change. The reading was engaging, and luckily short. I complained about all the essays we had to write, but they weren't too difficult. The class was simply an annoyance, a drain on my time while I was working to complete my BA in three years.

I turned in my essay about food ethics for the midterm assignment and was surprised when she gave me a B+. I was used to getting A's whenever I touched pen to paper. I had already developed a unique voice and writing style, and honed my writing with blogging and extracurricular research papers.

It was a good essay. I was upset.

I took the offending paper to her after class. We sat on a bench in the hallway and she looked over it, pointing out a few things I could have done differently. She told me it was good and she was impressed with my handling of the topic.

Hart Hall Corridor by Waymond C.
"But this is worth an A," I told her. "I'm one of your best students."

"I know," she said. "This would be worth an A+ if one of your peers wrote it. But you're already a strong writer. This was easy for you. It took you half the energy it did anyone else. I know you can do better. I know you can work harder and be even better than this."

I hated hearing that. I hated knowing that her critique was true. I had spent an hour on an essay that appeared to everyone else like a polished, arduous paper. But I had only needed an hour and one draft to get it that good. I hated that she was penalizing me for being a better writer than my peers.

Yet something also clicked for me. It was the first time someone I looked up to told me I was a good writer. Not just as a passing compliment, but someone who knew the craft and was familiar with my writing. An expert who had seen a fair sample of my work was calling me good.

And saying I could be better.

I want to say it changed me that day. It certainly sank down deep within me and unsettled me in places I couldn't see yet. At the time, things stayed pretty much the same. I upped my game a little, but I didn't put a lot of importance on a general ed class when I was working my way through upper division syntax. I wanted things to be easy like they always had been.

I think she knew that things would change somewhere in my future. Or maybe I was an even better writer than she was willing to tell me face to face. Either way, she rewarded me at the end of the quarter with an A+ in the class.

Funnily enough, I remember some of the stuff we read in that class with surprising clarity. Elements of our debate about selling one's organs stuck with me. But more than anything, her lesson to me on that bench remained in my memory.

That class put a niggling voice in the back of my head. I kept on writing and haven't stopped. I wrote because my writing was good, and I wrote because I could be better. The voice, at once both affirming and demanding, drove me to keep striving and learning and improving myself.

A few years later, that niggling voice would be the reason I felt confident becoming a full-time writer. A few years after that, I sent off queries for my book, confident that it was good--room for improvement, but good enough. And of course, the room for improvement is why I keep on writing.

That complement wrapped up in a critique was the fire I needed. That's the power of words, and perhaps that is her second lesson to me. Words have power. What I write can be as powerful as her words that day.

I didn't have to take that class. I could have tested out. But I figured, what the heck, and that "what the heck" is why I'm here. All because of a test I never took.

Word count: 1,000.