When I reflect on my experiences in writing in middle school and high school, the memories that stand out to me the most are from my ninth-grade English class. (To protect and preserve the identity of the innocent, er, guilty, my English teacher shall remain nameless.)
Up until that point, I had tons of positive reinforcement on my writing. I remember my fifth-grade teacher praising me for "painting a picture with words," and my eighth-grade English teacher asked to use my works as models for other students. I wrote, wrote, wrote all the time: stories, poems, prayers, inspirational quotations, observations, notes to friends, you name it. My method of processing the world was through writing.
But when I was in ninth-grade English, my view of myself as a writer changed. When my view of myself as a writer changed, my willingness to write outside of school also changed. I stopped writing, writing, writing.
What happened to cause me to lose my love of writing? I wrote what was (at least to me) a brilliant psychological thriller that had been percolating in my mind for at least a year. The story was written by somebody with a split personality disorder who did not know that she had a split personality disorder. She was actually the killer while also being afraid of the killer. I don't remember the specifics exactly, but I do remember that it was beautifully, subtly written (in my ninth-grade mind), and that the whole key to the story depended on a red handkerchief, which was the primary clue.
I remember the English teacher submitted the story back to me with nothing but a big A- on the front of it, with a comment, "So the narrator was the killer?"
I felt justified that she at least GOT my clue, but crestfallen that the story I had worked so hard on received an A-. The teacher then went on a verbal rant to the whole class, saying that she had never read a batch of stories that was so dark and disturbing before, and she was sure that the media was ruining our young and impressionable minds.
Okay, but in my defense, almost all of the stories I wrote were upbeat and chipper; this story was just a psychological thriller/slash/murder mystery, which is a totally valid genre. Now that I reflect back on it, I think the teacher was so worn out from reading stories that she gave me an A- in part because she was weary of violence, and not because I had written a poor story. I currently work with teachers now who admit that when they are in a bad mood, they give lower scores to essays than when they are in a good mood.
I went home that night, threw the story away, stopped writing for pleasure...and more importantly, began to doubt my ability to write stories.
What can be learned from this story?
I take away a few lessons:
First, teachers should not evaluate assignments based on their personal beliefs, but rather according to specified pre-determined criteria. The teacher evaluated my story based on her personal belief that stories with murders were bad, but she never told me in advance that she did not want a murder mystery. I felt like she evaluated me based on her morals instead of on the story's literary merit.
Second, students deserve positive feedback as well as constructive criticism. If she had said something like, "I really loved the subtlety of your clues," or something like that, I probably would not have thrown the story away, even if she had still given me the A-.
Third, teachers need to remember they are working with students who internalize their teachers' opinions of them. Believe me, I know that reading essays gets very tiring, but students still deserve to know what they do well, and they deserve people who encourage them, believe in them, and make them feel like they can succeed as writers.