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Note: I first wrote this for jasonboyett.com and published it there last week, but thought it might fit well over here as well.
I grew up across the street from a girl named Megan. Like me, she had blond hair. Unlike me, she lived in an awesome two-story house (I grew up thinking multi-level houses were really cool). Megan and I were good friends for a long time, which she will remember, and she was my very first crush…which she may or may not have known until right this minute. Had you asked me, in 2nd grade, whom I’d want to be my girlfriend, I would have named her.
Megan and I carpooled to school. During our elementary years, Megan’s mom, Ann, picked us up most days in what I remember as a little white MG. It was in that car, on the way home from school one day, that I heard President Reagan had been shot. Ann was crying when she told us. She had the radio on.
We continued to carpool in junior high, by which time Ann was driving a classic, first-generation Mustang. She was the funkiest of moms, wearing chunky jewelry and lots of turquoise. Most junior high kids are embarrassed by their parents, but I thought Megan’s mom was cool.
Eventually Megan and I drifted apart. We took different classes and had different friends. I moved on to other crushes (including, in high school, the girl I eventually married). But Megan and I still saw each other every so often. We were neighbors. We kept in touch.
Academically, I coasted through high school. English classes were especially easy. Writing and grammar and literature and all that stuff came naturally to me. My teachers would assign an essay, I’d sit down for about 20 minutes in my room and hammer it out (without much planning or forethought) and turn it in, unedited, for an A. Always an A.
Writing was easy. I was good at it.
I got a local scholarship that paid all my tuition at a local junior college, so I attended there for the first couple years after graduating (the reasons I stayed home for college are part of another story for another time). I was thrilled to discover that my first Freshman Composition professor was none other than Ann, my friend Megan’s mom. I’d forgotten she taught there. We hadn’t kept in touch, but she knew me and I knew her and it was kind of fun to reconnect. She was still funky.
She assigned our first essay. I don’t remember what it was about. But as was my custom, I wrote it on the fly in about 30 minutes and turned it in. I expected an A.
Ann gave me a C.
As I was leaving class that day, she asked me to come by her office so we could talk about my grade. We set a time, and when I arrived she explained to me that she knew I was a good writer. She also knew that I had been coasting through high school on nothing but talent. I could write with an engaging voice and was adept at stringing sentences together, but my essay lacked evidence of any forethought. It was short on craftsmanship and technique. My arguments were lazy. My entire essay was lazy, and she told me so.
But she didn’t just drop that bomb and send me away, in pieces. She sat me down at her desk and she helped me pick up the pieces and reassembled them. Together we went through the assignment. She showed me the difference between my high school essays and what was expected of college essays. We talked about transitions, and about building up arguments sentence-by-sentence in well-organized paragraphs. We talked of introductions and other structural necessities.
For an hour, she showed me how to do it right. I took it to heart.
I have never forgotten the things I learned in that tiny office. From that point on, following her advice, I never got another C on a college writing assignment — from Ann or any other instructors. In fact, her advice allowed me to begin writing with MORE confidence than I had in high school, because now I was doing it right. She helped me build a technical foundation beneath my creativity and talent and that structure made my writing degrees and degrees better.
I expanded from freshman comp essays to the school newspaper and magazine. It wasn’t long before I was writing a column for the city newspaper. I became editor of the school magazine. I started getting freelance-writing jobs from local businesses. By the time I turned 20, I was pitching articles to national magazines.
Within a few years, I was writing books.
I’m a writer today because I have a natural talent at it and I have worked hard to cultivate it.
But I am also a writer because my freshman composition teacher sat down with me for an hour, burst my high-school-inflated bubble, and showed me how to write well.
Ann and I lost touch after that semester. At the beginning of the next semester, she had a bad car accident and stopped teaching for awhile. I didn’t see her around the English department any more. I graduated and moved on.
We reconnected a couple weeks ago on Facebook, via Megan. Today, Ann lives across the country and is still teaching. I sent her a few of my books. Upon inscribing O Me of Little Faith, I wrote that she had impacted my career more than she knew. She replied how much those words meant to her. She told me to keep writing words that mattered.
I started writing this post.
Humility is hard for me. But when I get caught up in thoughts of my own talent or success or (of course) fantastic hair, I find the fastest route out of that arrogance is by remembering the people who propelled me to where I am today. Because I owe a LOT of it to them.
There are plenty of talented people in the world, but the best kind of talented people are the humble, grateful ones. That’s what I want to be. That’s why I try to keep Ann’s advice and attention at the front of my mind. Because she believed in my ability. Because she took the time to help. Because she gave me a gift as an 18-year-old college freshman, and half a life later, I’m still unwrapping it every day.
This might surprise her, but on the list of people who have deeply influenced my life, she’s in the top ten. Maybe top five.
She taught me the value of ending my essays with a powerful closing, so here it is:
First, all of us have benefited from someone like Ann — someone who played a significant role in helping you get where you are. Does that person know it? If not, tell him or her. Do it today. Find them on Facebook. Send an email. Write a letter.
Second, all of us have the potential to influence someone like Ann influenced me. Is there anyone who would put YOU on their list of major influences? Look for ways to be someone’s funky Mustang-driving Freshman Comp instructor, metaphorically speaking. Find someone to believe in. Find someone to give a shot. Find someone to invest in, even if it’s just for an hour.
Small gifts can go a long way.