The Boy Who Couldn't Imagine Himself a Writer

                                                    Tom Birdseye

The boy sat in the back of his fourth grade classroom staring out the window. It was time to write, and he couldn't seem to get going.

Sure, there was that story-starter his teacher had written on the board. But he didn't feel like writing about how he would govern if President. His dreamed instead of basketball, that last second shot that wins the game, a place for him in the Hall of Fame.

And anyway, even if he did get a sentence started, he knew it was ultimately hopeless. His spelling was rotten. His paper would come back with each mistake -- each and every mistake -- circled in red.

His punctuation skills weren't exactly top of the class, either. Capitals, periods, commas, semi-colons and quotations all confused him. More red marks.

And then there was the unfathomable paragraph. Just how do you know when it's time to start a new one, anyway? Still more red marks.

Of course, there was his handwriting to contend with, too. The fact that he was left-handed didn't seem to dampen one bit his teacher's insistence that his cursive slant to the right like everyone else's. He could do it if he turned his paper weird and curled his arm around and over what he was writing. But quickly his hand would start to ache, and it all smeared anyway. What was supposed to be a neatly written story always seemed to turn out looking like the school bus had run over it . . . after the dog had tried to eat it for lunch. He'd be lucky -- very lucky -- if he got a C, given the inevitable red marks.

Mistakes, mistakes, mistakes. Writing was a time for mistakes. The boy sat and stared out the window, waiting for recess, waiting for 3:10 and the end of the day, dreaming of the swish of his basketball through the hoop, crawdads under creek rocks, forts built in the woods, bicycles without fenders, butter pecan ice cream, and school called off on account of snow. It was 1961, and never once did it enter the his mind that some day he might become an author.

And yet several decades later -- after college, marriage, and ten years of teaching fifth grade, kindergarten, and English as a second language in Japan -- that is exactly what happened. The story is true. That fourth grade boy was me. So is the forty-two-year-old writer.

At first, even after a growing number of books published, this transformation amazed me; I wondered if it were some strange sort of a fluke. When I visited schools and talked to students about the writing process, I found myself chronicling my belated journey to becoming a writer as if telling it aloud might finally confirm the reality. "You can do it," I said as much to myself as the reluctant writers in the audience. "Despite everything, you can."

Later, thinking of my writing history brought out different feelings. Anger crept in as I found myself wondering why I wasn't encouraged back in fourth grade instead of discouraged. Why wasn't I told that the story comes first, mechanics second, that being a lousy speller, punctuator and penman didn't mean I had nothing of value to say? Why wasn't I shown through good literature that my entire life -- the carnival-like wonder of childhood, along with the scraped knees, broken arm, injured pride, dashed hopes, and cruel moments -- was meaningful, important, and worthy of a story, worthy of my pen? Why?

Why was it so many years before the right mentors finally came along and helped me to see past the hurdles of writing, emphasizing instead the joy of and the satisfaction to be had in it? The seemingly impenetrable maze of story structure was demystified, setting and character development guides offered, the part and parcels of a satisfying piece of literature defined. With their help, I began to see how I could turn the material of my life into the material of a story, fictionalizing to my heart's content, as long as I honestly conveyed life's emotional truths. I was urged to carry a small notebook, to be on the lookout for things to jot down: the funny, telling, or poignant glimpses of life that are too often overlooked, ordinary people that would make good characters, memories of my childhood triggered by what I might see and hear, the wonderfully wise things people will say at the most unexpected moments. Feedback was honest, but always constructive. Support for my efforts was unwavering; no pom-pom waving throng of cheerleaders could have been more encouraging. And slowly, very slowly, I began to think of myself as a writer, to believe in myself as a writer, to write.

But why so late? Why not as a child?

The easiest answer was to blame my earlier teachers. It was their fault. They didn't understand writing, and so taught it wrong. But I knew teacher bashing to be unfair -- we do the best we can given what we know -- and besides, it missed what I finally came to realize is the point: not that as a child I wasn't a writer, but that today I am, and if well-intentioned but misguided teaching did in fact silence my writer's voice years ago, well-intentioned and well-informed teaching brought it back. Teaching made the difference, both times. The power of it is phenomenal, the responsibility awesome in the truest sense of the word. I bow in its presence when done well.

True, no amount of good teaching can fix everything. Learning is not a Cinderella story full of happily-ever-afters. Despite all of the wonderful assistance I continue to receive, I still have to wrestle with the spelling beast and the punctuation monster. I still have to find my way through the the labyrinth of paragraph construction, plus grapple with many more subtle and complex issues. I'm compelled to write and rewrite, fight off frustration, then rewrite some more, in order to finally glean my best. Like most things, writing takes time, practice, and perseverance. It is work.

But thanks to good teaching, my day-to-day experience with that work is now built more of pleasure than of pain. I love writing, and I love sharing the intricacies of the process and the results of it with others. You see, for me, the bottom line is this: The boy who couldn't imagine himself a writer, now can't imagine himself anything else.

« Back to Teachers and Librarians' Page