“Alexis, can you please stay and talk to me after class?” My 10th grade English teacher, Ms Borden, asked at the end of class one day. No. I did not want to stay behind. I wanted to beeline to the cafeteria to eat a huge panzerotto. I knew what she was going to say, anyway. She was going to call me out for skipping two classes in the previous week. But so what. English class was a waste of time anyway. And the whole school year would be over in less than 7 days.
“Alexis, this is the essay you wrote in class on Friday.” Borden said pulling out my paper from a stack of files as I stood uncomfortably at her desk. Alright. Let me have it. She knew I hadn’t finished reading Hamlet. I braced myself. “You got an 85 percent. You’re a really great writer.”
For a second, I softened. Gave a half smile. “Thanks.”
“But right now, in this class, you’re averaging a 72 percent.” She revealed. Sweet. Over 70. She didn’t think so. “Your marks are being pulled down by your constant absences and missed assignments. Somebody who writes as beautifully as you should be averaging at least an 80.”
I think it was the word “beautifully” that annoyed me the most. She thought my writing was beautiful? What was she even talking about? All I did was mindlessly scribble down an essay comparing MacBeth and Hamlet, without even knowing how the latter ended, just making a lucky guess. I hadn’t even chosen the topic, she had. There was nothing beautiful about that essay.
“I’ll tell you what,” Borden offered when I failed to reply. She had on a proud smile about her coming suggestion. It bugged me. “If you don’t miss any more classes, submit your literary essay on time, and do well on the final exam, I can probably manage to bump your final grade to an 80.”
“Okay,” was all I replied. But it wasn’t okay. What she was asking of me was absolutely unreasonable. She wanted me to write a literary analysis of Ordinary People that was as “beautiful” as that Shakespeare essay. How could I do that, if I didn’t even know what made my writing “beautiful” in the first place. My writing was just a random stream of consciousness. It was easier than thinking. It was as natural as breathing. It wasn’t beautiful, and I didn’t know how to make it beautiful.
I resented her high expectations. I didn’t even want an 80 in the class. Most universities didn’t even look at marks before 11th grade anyway. I didn’t want to risk writing something that she wouldn’t find beautiful and disappoint her. I didn’t want her, or anyone else, reading or talking about my writing ever again.
I never handed in that literary analysis, and I skipped the last few days of class. I still ended up finishing with a 75 percent. I must have aced the final exam. Ms Borden never confronted me about it again, and for the next two years I had different teachers. I never really appreciated how hard she tried. Or how she knew when to back down.
And I, of course, had no way of predicting that this story would constantly spring to my mind ten years into the future. I still think of it every time it’s my turn to be the teacher that counsels a surly teenager who doesn’t think it’s worth it to work to the potential that they have no idea they even have.