Imagine the cliché high school, complete with questionable frozen school lunches, social power dynamics, surging hormones, and teachers complacently groaning in unison. Now, picture the opposite (apart from the bad food and sometimes surging hormones). That was the high school I was raised in. Set in a suburb of Hartford, in New Britain Connecticut, a not so quaint community known for its minor league baseball team (or lack thereof), my high school was cubic zirconium in what I realized was labeled a field of carefully selected diamonds. Gliding through damp and dark stairwells, peeling off paint chips plastered on precariously 50 years ago, the aroma of the high school, both literally and figuratively, stuck with you. It was a bit pungent to say the least, when most of the walls cluttered phrases like “failure is not an option”, “or drop your pants and drop your grade”.
The edge that fluttered through the air like an invisible kick seemed only to motivate some and amuse others. With a slogan like “college and career ready”, we were consistently motivated to believe in an institution that so desperately wanted to boost its graduation ratings, and send its students packing to the nearest 2 or 4 year university. The most receptive spectacles remained our educators, the teachers that had committed their lives to changing how we saw the world through our narrow bubble. Some of these teachers, however, failed to ever spark or ignite the cliché flame within my writing soul. In my freshman year “Foundations of English” class, belittled by a vague title, we began by being taught a specific formula of writing. It was humiliating and upsetting. Words flew from my mind and on to paper quicker than I could count to 10, and yet here I was filling out lists, playing an evil game of mad libs. We were handed sheets that would outline the paragraphs we were writing for, rolling into blank lines where we were expected to fill out the name of the author or story, or a list adjectives we believed sounded intelligent. We were taught primarily for the testing that would occur the following year. I don’t recall writing one creative piece, one piece where I sat and poured out something relevant to my life that encouraged some barbaric writer’s lust in me. I learned nothing about what writing constituted as, besides hopelessness, and I learned nothing about myself as a writer. Sophomore year changed it all, and from here on out, my writing and my voice grew. Introduced to a teacher whose passion derived from words, I indulged in my excitement to write stories and tales, and even essays where my prose was not identical to the average high school-er sleepily day dreaming and copying away. We had weekly vocabulary tests, all of which I never seemed to mind too much, as I was learning new words, words of a language that was still so rare and undiscovered to me that I cowered in fear at the spectacle of such jargon. My teacher professed her innate desire for us to grow to love writing; little did she know I had developed this loving relationship at a young age when pencils and paper meant more to me than my own brother did. She hovered over our silent bobbing heads, watching as our pencils slid gallantly over the smooth white paper we told our life tales on. Group presentations, artistic expression, and our voices were immediately identified as the most important aspect of the class.
After reading The Great Gatsby we were sat down and told to write a short story, composed of at least 3 literary devices. Besides that we were given no instructions, but rather vocal guidance in what she expected. We were never told that if we desired to hand in a creative piece that we would be turned away. Accordingly, we wrote 5 paragraph essays lined with thesis annotations, clips of story lines littering pages, and wanton conclusion paragraphs. There were boundaries and rules that were set that we understood. From this pick pocket area of my life I discovered the two types of writing that could make or break your career in high school and beyond: flowery poetry I desperately wished to create, and boring essays I was indignant about. And I came up with my own type of conclusion. That conclusion came my freshman year of college, in a small creative writing class, stuffed with a variety of theater kids and business who and whats. Set in a town in Long Island riddled with crime that we all seemed to ignore, our one goal in life was to please this professor with our superfluous knowledge of both writing and reading short stories. This man had a list. Now, I’m not that much of a fan of lists when it comes to someone grading my creative work. It can be helpful getting criticism from someone who’s been writing for a long time, however it can be detrimental when I try to write a story about character development rather than plot and fail out with D because I didn’t quite have the awe inspiring, jaw dropping climax this professor was so vehemently set on looking for in each and every single story. I dreamed of having my style, voice and belief system (as well as abundant run on sentences) mean as much as action or plot, that I so predominantly flaunted these in each story in order to attempt to win over this poor man’s heart, but he was so stuck on the technical aspects of what a short story needed to have, that I felt trapped.
I felt like I was no longer a writer, whether I was decent or terrible, I could never admit to myself or anyone else. I wrote stories I was proud of, and complete rewrites I wasn’t proud of. The first sting of college had hit like the first shot a baby gets, sometimes you just can’t stop crying. What I learned from what I hadn’t learned I still take to this day, bearing it with me that my words are subjective to anyone who reads what I write. The problem with what I have learned over the years in relation to writing is that sometimes, you write for you. You have to be a little selfish. And sometimes you have to let go of that pride, strip your writing down, and write for others. And even though it’s hard to compromise in high school, or college, or a career, or wherever this strange twist of events takes you, you’ve got to realize that everything in fact is riddled with compromise. We have pieces of writing we are expected to have set rules for, for this writing you grit your teeth down, write as best as you can, hope for an A, and hope for a great paper and not “good enough paper”. And when you just don’t get an A because you’re not an essay writer, you’re a flowery poetry, short story something or other who hates the thought of punctuation or rules, you try again and again and over again, adding your tiny little edge, whatever it may be, to get that great paper.