Most of the lucky breaks in my life have come as a result of being in the right place when someone else was in a hard one.
This particular instance, that place was in the promotional office of the university where I worked, when the head of the writing department walked through the door and declared they’d just lost their writing professor.
“You write don’t you, Emily?” he asked, a keen look at me.
“That’s what you hired me for,” I said, already feeling it would be short-lived. At my previous job I’d been hired to edit copy and ended up filming a documentary, A Literary Tour of England. Me: Right place. Film crew: Shorthanded. See a pattern?
“I’m certified to teach high school,” I offered. “And English, as a second language.” The glint in his eye told me it might not have mattered even if I’d been in high school, and a non-English speaker.
“All I’m asking is you sub a few lectures, grade a few papers. Close the faculty gap,” he said.
By the spring I was teaching the class.
Did I say “lucky break”? It may have been lucky. It was far from being a break. No amount of credentials could have prepared me to face that pure adolescent skepticism - even being barely post-adolescent myself.
These weren’t your average “freshers” either, though they were “fresh”. A first year advanced program, they each had to submit a philosophical paper even to be admitted. They read 52 books over the course of the year, an average of five hours a day. And now what? A by-the-book new teacher who looked about as green as she was snarky? A year out of university myself, and fully aware that things were only going to get harder for them, I gave no grace on form, dropped full grade points for missing citations and rigorously enforced rules of argumentation.
Sure, I ruffled a lot of feathers, but only one student ever showed up at my door. Not the door to my office either, the door to my house, a considerably farther walk from campus.
“Tell me this isn’t serious.” Chris brandished a graded paper in one fist. “I’ve been putting bibliographies on my essays the entire year. Not one single teacher told me I didn’t have to!”
“It’s in the style guide.”
“I’ve read the style guide. But what about this other stuff?” He flipped through the marked-up pages. He wasn’t the worst in the class, but he had one thing right: His problems were far outside the realm of the style guide. And just when I was about to say that some of writing is learned, and some is bred, he produced a second-hand copy of Strunk and White from his back pocket.
“Would something like this help?”
It would. I also recommended Zinsser and told him to pay attention to the writing in the curriculum, not just the content of it, the flow of the prose in Christopher Dawson’s histories, the way Rodney Stark cast his hooks.
Polishing a writer is no less arduous a task than polishing a piece of writing, and no less painful. For each student, every red mark was a chance to plummet or improve. And Chris, perhaps because he had so many marks to begin with and chose to improve with all of them, ended the term top of his class, hard to distinguish from those who’d entered with the raw natural talent for writing. So it was not surprise that he was the one to go on to a successful career in it.
But it wasn’t something from Skunk and White that did that for him, much less something I taught him (though it was something I learned from him). It was whatever force had brought him, out of all the other students, to my house that day.
“Entitlement,” Malcolm Gladwell calls it in his book, Outliers, the savvy to get what one wants, the audacity to ask for attention, the difference between questioning, and seeking out answers.
What I didn’t realize was entitlement is part of being a writer. What are writers, after all, if not the ones that believe they have a right to speak up? Writing well requires throwing off a (maybe adolescent, maybe just human) sense of distance, distrust, constraint, and having the audacity to ask for the world’s attention.
Kudos to Chris, I don’t get my jobs by lucky breaks anymore, but I still often find myself in the right place, even if it takes a long walk to get there.
Photo credit of megaphone : A is for Angie