I am in the middle of one of the most satisfying moments in my teaching career.
I’ll get to that in a moment, but first, some background.
I started teaching at Montclair Kimberley Academy in 2002. Shortly thereafter, I met a student named Joe Lazauskas. When I say met, I really mean dodged. Joe was late for 9th grade English on the first day and moving a bit too quickly. He didn’t want to be late to English, you see. Math or science? Sure. But not English. So he almost knocked me over on his way to his seat.
This breakneck pace became a motif in the life story of this young man, at least as I knew him in 9th grade English, and his first formal paper did not break the pattern. Joe wrote about the world and ideas as if no barriers existed. He may or may not have been under the influence of Vonnegut or Kerouac at the time. The paper was longer than it should have been. It had voice and texture, and when it reached too far, it reached with style. Six styles. It was awkward and overly reverential. It made outrageous claims with phrases that barreled through periods and logic. It didn’t have time for writerly conventions or readerly expectations. This wasn’t an information transaction so much as pure discovery, pure exhalation of breath, wonder shot forward machine-gun style.
I loved it; I gave it a C; I hated myself.
I’ve graded thousands of papers, and this was the most painful C I have ever given. In his writing, Joe made a sound loud enough for me to hear him from across the state, let alone from across Room 13. His writing jumped from the pile. It demanded attention. But Joe had completely disregarded the assignment, and in so doing, had lost control of a medium that certainly mattered to him.
I gave him a C because, even then, I thought he might actually have a chance to be a real writer. Not a five-paragraph essay writer. Not a “I-can-come-up-with-a-great-thesis-in-my-sleep-and-put-you-to-sleep-in-the-process” writer. Not a safe writer. It’s a weird thing to acknowledge, but I had to call him to task, to hurt his chance of being conventionally successful in my class, because I believed in him so deeply at that moment. I believed that he could be better than my class. And I believed that giving him a typical reward at that moment might actually damage his chances of being what I knew he wanted to be. A real writer. So I couldn’t pat him on the back just then and say, “you tried really hard so I’m going to reward you with a good grade.” I had to say, instead, more honestly, “you tried really hard, but that doesn’t mean you’re a good writer yet. It just proves that you’re capable of putting in more effort and energy than any of your peers. And if you keep doing that, if you keep working hard, you’ll get somewhere.”
To be clear, I don’t take credit for what Joe’s become. He has put in the time, the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice, written and edited and edited again the millions of words that it takes to become a legitimate working writer. I’m just proud of him. I’m just happy . . . as happy as I have ever been in my teaching career. Because Joe published his first book recently. It’s called The Storytelling Edge, and it’s at least a B-.