You know, I had a teacher once - well let's not call him a teacher, let's call him a guy who was paid to pontificate at me in high school...damn, that's a bit wordy, isn't it? Okay, fine, we'll call him a negative teacher. Nice. So anyway, this particular fella had an eye and a mind. He was the sharp and savvy negative teacher all the students wanted and to the ninth-grade-nothings we were, he was a god.
I idolized him like the rest. No other way to put it. So, when he called me into his classroom one afternoon only a month into high school, I was actually excited to be singled out. Surely, he would have read our first essay by now, the one we wrote on our summer reading, J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. He must be bringing me in to tell me how my paper is the best thing he's ever read and how he wants me to share it in front of the class, but to leave out some of the best parts, so the other kids don't feel too discouraged about their efforts. That was not why he called me in.
You see, up until that very moment, the moment Mr. So and So told me his opinion, I loved writing. I loved holding the words in my mouth and teething on them like an infant, playing my own mental Scrabble games to see what sort of dance I could coax my words to perform. I loved the way poetry and silky prose felt in my head after a bad day and I thought I was as good at writing those little language experiments as I was at reading them. As life would have it, though, Mr. So and So taught me a very negative lesson that afternoon - one that held sway over me for years to come.
"Mr. Ali, thank you for coming. We need to talk about your essay." This is it! This is it!
"Thanks for having me, Mr. So and So! Yours is my favorite class so far. I think -"
"I'm gonna stop you right there, Mr. Ali. We have a problem. Well, I'll just say it. You are not fit for this program." Wait, what?
"I don't understand. What does that mean?" Don't cry.
"Mr. Ali, this is -"
"You can just call me Hanif..."
"Okay...fine. This is the Edgewater High School Engineering Science and Technology Magnet program and mine is the gifted English class. I don't know how you were accepted to the former, or if you even belong there, but in the latter you do not. What school are you zoned for?" Don't cry.
"Colonial High. It's on the other side of town. My mom didn't want me to go there because..."
"That would be a better fit. You should seriously rethink your place in the EST gifted program. You don't belong here and it is only going to get harder from this point."
I cried, right there in front of my old favorite teacher, "You got all that from my paper? I mean, we haven't done almost any other assignments yet."
"Yes, Mr. Ali, I got all of that from what could hardly be called an essay. You cannot write, and in this program that is enough to disqualify you."
I sat at the table in silence with the afternoon light filtering through the blinds, reminding me I had a swim practice to attend, but I was scared to move - scared my movement would make the scene real.
"You can go now, Mr. Ali." I blinked away my last few tears, took my bag and my skateboard and walked out of that classroom, but I left something behind - any confidence I had in my ability to write.
If I wasn't forced to - if it wasn't directly assigned - I didn't write an extra sentence for the next four years, but I never stopped reading. I carried Emerson's Essays under my arm, delved into Keats and Wordsworth and filled the easy hours with Crichton, Koontz and King. When college came around and a Major had to be chosen, my thought process was as rudimentary as, "Well, I love to read," before I selected English. In my naïveté, I was ready to read, but never considered I'd have to write much of anything.
The University of Florida's esteemed staff were prestigious and unforgiving. Quickly, I felt over my head and out of my league and then it happened - I had a new favorite teacher: Professor Jim Paxson. The man was a marvel and a seat in his class was like having a golden ticket to Willy Wonka's factory. Dr. Paxson had a cutting wit and soaring encyclopedic knowledge on any topic that came up. In days only, he had my respect and within weeks, I was terrified to disappoint him. So, of course, as fate would have it, that only the day after submitting our first large essay on some obscure Middle English text, I received a succinct email from the man.
"Come see me during my office hours tomorrow if you would please, Mr. Ali."
-Dr. Jim Paxson"
It was at this point I started planning my escape. I fell into the quick sand, head first. I'm found out! He knows I'm a terrible writer! An impostor! He knows I don't belong here. Will he recommend to the academic board they rethink my acceptance letter? Could I pretend I hadn't seen his email and switch classes before Monday? How does one switch one's Major after all?
In the end, it was no use. I had to go visit him. There was no time to change my course and I had nothing else I wanted to do. I loved literature. So, instead, I started preparing and shredding draft after draft of a completely new essay to make up for the first one. I didn't sleep until the meeting and entered Dr. Paxson's office with an amateur apology piece of rewritten abstractions, all based on a weak thesis.
KNOCK KNOCK KNOCK
Jim's dusky end-of-day voice bid me to enter. It was late, near nine o' clock, and Turlington Plaza was all but emptied. I steeled myself, gripped my replacement paper, and walked into his office. The place was warm and the walls adorned with diplomas, certifications and testaments to the intellectual giant behind his meager desk. Papers overflowed the thing and Dr. Paxson smiled a little as I stood and fidgeted. "Hello sir. I enjoyed class today...you wanted to see me about my paper, I guess?" Of course he does.
"That's right." Damn. "Hanif, isn't it? Arabic origin. Fascinating backstory to your name. Anyway, I did bring you here on account of your paper. Do you have any idea how hard it is to get a Professor to laugh, alone in his office, after reading fifty ten-page papers on Geoffrey Chaucer?" Gotta be pretty awful for that.
"I suppose you wouldn't, would you? Well, I assure you it's no easy task. You, Hanif, have been keeping a secret, haven't you?" Oh my God. He knows I don't belong here.
"Yeah, I suppose I have."
"Well, it's out now. You sir, are a great writer!" Wait, what?
"Yep! No doubt about it. Your stuff was concise, provoking, well-supported - without being dry - lucid and, well, funny. It's not very often I feel I have to acknowledge a student in my office for giving me the giggles while reading novice Middle English assertions."
"I...uhh...are you sure you...uhh -"
"Listen, this meeting is really a thanks for making my grading easier and more fun, and a little unsolicited advice that if you weren't thinking about going into the writing profession, you may want to consider it, Champ. Okay?"
"Okay, Dr. Paxson," a smile covered my face.
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