I was a senior in high school, nearing graduation, the day I went to take my Advanced Placement English exam. It was a bit like taking the SAT's in that the exam was held at a larger school in the center of town and you had to pre-register to take it. Good scores meant college credit.
The exam was unlike the SAT's in that it was composed mostly of essays instead of fill-in-the-bubbles-completely-with-a-number-2-lead-pencil sections.
I loved English. I loved fine writing and classic literature, specifically British literature. Jane Eyre was my favorite. I'd already read the book through four times by that point (in the fifteen years since graduation, I've multiplied that number by at least three), and had written essay after essay after essay on the underlying themes, the Byronic hero (Mr. Rochester), the Rochester/St. John/Jane love triangle, etc.
I knew, or at least, I hoped that some of the essays in the AP exam would include a question or two about Jane Eyre. All in all, I felt fairly confident, not just about Jane Eyre, but also about most of the rest of the literature we'd studied that year.
The day of the exam, I was in my homeroom getting my stuff ready to go and discussing the exam with my English teacher. I slung my backpack over my shoulder and smiled at her. "Wish me luck," I said.
That dear lady swiveled in her chair to face me, hesitated, then said, "Tama, you're not a very good writer, you know."
Before continuing on, let me say that I held my English teacher in the highest respect, that I'm sure she had reason to say what she did (because some of my earlier high school papers were pretty atrocious), and that I think she only said what she said so I wouldn't fly too high and crash too hard.
After the words were out of her mouth, though, at that moment, I was stunned. And hurt. I cried the whole way over to the exam. And what a distracted beginning. Instead of focusing on the questions listed on my sheet, I kept hearing the echo of her words in my head... "Tama, you're not a very good writer..." over and over and over again.
I tried to shake it off, to write like I knew I could write, and I did. I wrote some really good answers to some really difficult questions. And then for the final long essay, lo and behold, there was the question for which I had been hoping. Describe how Mr. Rochester is a Byronic hero. Oh boy. I wrote until my hand cramped and then I wrote some more. I finished the last sentence as the timer rang. I handed in my paper with a triumphant smile on my face.
Incidentally, when my results came back some weeks later, I had earned high enough scores to exempt me from at least one semester of English in college. No, I didn't win a four-year exemption. I don't even know if that was an option. But I was pretty pumped.
This story still has a bittersweet ring in my memory. On the bitter side, I still remember the crushing feeling I felt when my teacher said those words. I still remember the intonation and inflection of every syllable. I remember the anger that came after the hurt subsided. Why would she choose to tell me something that was only subjectively true (based on personal opinion) just before a writing exam? Talking about choosing your moments...
On the sweet side, that one little comment has perhaps inspired me more than many other comments I've received on my writing over the years. Perhaps it lit a fire under me, put fuel into my head when writer's block stared me in the face. Perhaps I wanted to prove her wrong because I had such a high opinion of her.
Fifteen years later, I've had multiple articles published in various magazines and newsletters. I have one book on the market, actually pulling in an income (a small one, but it is a first book), and another book set to release this summer. A third book sits on my laptop, gradually growing longer as I add to it day by day.
Those words from my teacher so long ago hover over me as I finish every paragraph and proofread it, urging me to be the best that I can be, to do the best work that I can do, to amuse, to entertain, to encourage, perhaps even to inspire some reader out there who stumbles across my work.
The one thing I learned from this whole situation: toss the bad, take the good. Sure, the timing of that comment wasn't the best, the wording perhaps not the choicest, but the flame it kindled in my writing career has been unequaled.
Everybody needs a push now and then. So to my English teacher, if you're reading this, thanks. I owe you one. :)