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Monday, June 15, 2015

Write What You Mean

My senior year high school English teacher passed away this week.

When I heard the news, I had the normal reaction that you would expect after hearing that someone you hadn't seen in 25+ years had passed away.

I burst into tears and started ugly crying.

So maybe NOT what you would expect...

I could barely get through her obituary (which I kept thinking "I wonder if she wrote this in advance... it sounds like her...").  By the time I got to the end where her family -- her legacy-- was listed, I was a boogery, slobbering mess.

I think this was due to the fact that about 3 weeks ago I thought "I really need to get in touch with her...  I have to find her son on Facebook."  I didn't know her son but we have mutual friends.  I posted something about what an amazing teacher she was on someone else's wall a few years ago and he commented that it was his mom and he would let her know.

I had been thinking of her because my son had asked me to proof his essay for National Junior Honor Society and I very honestly felt as if I had channeled her.  More on that later.

Mrs. Rapport was a tiny, feisty woman with a fairly thick Boston accent.  She was known as a hard ass, to be blunt.  She could strike fear into children's hearts.  She also had a reputation for not liking the band students because we missed school too much.  Our high school had a strong performing arts program and we would go to contests and miss school from time to time.

For some reason, I did not believe the hype.  First, she was married to Mr. Rapport who was a junior high social studies teacher and possibly the nicest man on the planet.  I never had him as a teacher but he was the type of guy you wanted to run up and hug.  Always happy.  I knew that anyone that was married to him definitely had a soft side.  Second, I knew she loved our community theater and plus, as an English teacher she had to love the arts.  Third, the times I had interacted with her before I was in her class she seemed, well, really funny.  Biting wit. 

While her reputation held that she was fierce in the classroom, I knew there was no way she was like that in real life.

At the beginning of my senior year, we all wrote essays and then scheduled a one-on-one with her to review our work.  It was in the English teacher's lounge which always smelled like stale cigarettes and breath mints.

We both sat down and I was nervous.  I had heard she was ruthless, but I knew I was an A student and she liked smart people.

She started with something like "Well, you are a fantastic writer."  Then she went through a few items that she had marked on the page.

Then she stopped.  She took a minute and turned and asked:

"Do you want to be a great writer?"

"Yes, of course," I replied.

"Here's the deal," she went on. "I can grade you against your peer group.  You'll get an A.  I just don't think you'll get anything out of it.  Or, I could grade you against your ability and you'll learn something.  I know you want to go to a good school-- or at least you should go to a good school-- and I don't want to hurt your grades unless you are okay with it."

She waited.

I thought about it and I said "Grade me against myself."

She smiled, perked up, grabbed her pen and said "GREAT!"

She then proceeded to DESTROY my A essay. 

Line marked out here.  Passive to active there.  Extra words.  Too many adjectives.

Chop. Chop. Chop.

I almost gasped out loud. 

But here's the thing-- at the end of her editing, my essay was 1,000 times better.    AND she explained everything as she tore it apart.

And I became a better writer.

I had issues with attendance in high school.  I often would leave after my calculus class and go work over lunch.  I was a little horrified when one day the English department walked in for a surprise lunch.  They were surprised (as was my boss when he realized I didn't had the day off school).  Mrs. Rapport asked me if I would be returning for the afternoon- for her class.  I was worried I was going to get in trouble for being truant.  Instead she said "Listen, I'll make you a deal.  You make sure you're in class on discussion days and I won't report you.  Sometimes, when the other students speak, I want to scratch my eyes out.  I need you there."


And she kept her word.  I never missed a discussion day and she never marked me absent on the days I decided to leave a little early.

She even bought band fruit from me.  At the holiday season, our band had a fundraiser every year.  Someone dared me to ask her-- she had apparently never bought fruit before.  I gave her my best sales pitch.  She looked at me and said "I don't know if you kids are learning any music down there, but you're definitely learning some valuable sales skills and that will be useful."  

She also became very passionate about my attending a quality university.  Very passionate.  One school that I was considering was St. John's College, a liberal arts school that utilized the Great Books program.  When I met with an alumus, I was horrified that he was bagging groceries after his fantastic education.  She told me that you don't go to college for a job, you go for an education.  I use that phrase every year when meeting with high school students.

When I applied to Cornell, much to her excitement,  I asked her to help me with my essays.  She was thrilled and invited me over to her house.  Her red pen was ready.

I thought I wrote a pretty fabulous essay.

She, based on the red marks, did not.

She finally stopped writing- looked up at me and said quite harshly: "This is crap.  What exactly are you trying to say?"

I told her.

"Then you need to write what you mean.  You don't need to impress them.  Only use the words you need.  Write what you mean."

And I did.

It was an essay about how my mom started college in her 40s to pursue her dream of becoming teacher.  I told it through a story about doing laundry, how I washed one red sock with my whites and it turned everything pink.  It was really about how life is perpetual and you are always learning.  Like my mom.  Like I learned to do laundry.

I wouldn't say it was good, but my senior year in college I volunteered to help in the admissions office calling newly accepted students.  I was asking them what the most popular topic was for the year.  They told me and I joked that I had written about laundry.

"The red sock?" one of the admissions staff asked.

"Um... yes... my mom..."  I said.

He interrupted, "...had gone back to school so you had to learn to do your own laundry.... I LOVED the essay.  One of the best ones I've ever read."  He had read thousands of essays over the years.

More than five years later, he still remembered it.  One of the best.

Because of Mrs. Rapport.

Because she was one of the best.
 


***********************************
Now back to my son...

"Hey Mom, you like to write.  Will you proof my essay?"

"Sure.  Let me see it."

It. Was. Awful.

I tried to start editing, but I couldn't.  It was that bad.  My son is super smart and tends to dial it in.

So I said, "Listen, you are probably going to get in because you are Skip Bean and everyone loves Skip Bean.  You are smart.  Teachers love you.  But this... this, my son, is a piece of shit (yes, I said that) and I cannot offer you any advice.  Maybe your dad can because he's used to reading crappy essays, but I have no idea where to begin.  I'm sure it will be fine, but it's not your best.  If you want to do your best, try it again.  What are you are trying to say?"

He told me a few things.

"So say it.  Get all the extra crap out of there.  Write what you mean."

For the next two hours, he worked on his essay.  When he gave it back to me to proof read, I told him I didn't have anything else to add.  He was shocked.  I told him it was perfect.

He had written what he meant.

Great advice.

And that's when I thought that I really needed to send Mrs. Rapport a card or something to tell her what a great teacher she was.  To tell her that every time I write a piece, I go back and delete about a third of it. I get rid of the useless words.  I select words with specific meanings to be precise.  And I think of her every single time I write.  Every single time.

I didn't get to write the letter.

I hope this blog will do.

Rest in peace, Mrs. Rapport. You were an amazing teacher.  You were passionate.  You were kind.  You were funny.  You were a huge influence.

Thank you.

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