Continued from: The Meeting that Changed My Life
She Said, He Said
The scene was set and we were ready for a showdown. Lady Holmes-Peters had won my respect with her sharp intellect and to put it plainly she had outclassed me. She was one of a precious few teachers that had ever got me to the point where I would now sit down with an open mind about the seemingly impossible: how could I, in all modesty, possibly be wrong? She managed the feat of getting me to listen, but that didn’t signify a surrender on my part. I was not leaving that room with an F on my paper. I was confident I could argue my position once I found out what reasons she had for giving me the F.
“Perran,” she began, “teachers have failed you in the past.”
“No, they haven’t,” I protested, “I have never failed any test, paper or class or anything else before in my life.”
Then I realized what her point was: teachers had done me no favors allowing me to arrive at this stage in academic life without being able to write well. I got what she was saying, but I still refused to believe my writing was as bad as the giant red F on the essay suggested.
“There is no question that you have good oratory skills,” she continued, “but good oratory is not good writing and good writing is not good oratory. That is why great leaders hire speech writers and not literary writers to draft their speeches. It is also why few speech writers ever cross over to writing books. At the moment, you are a skilled orator, but you are not able to communicate the same message with the same force and clarity in what you write. Your writing is muddled. The points you are trying to make get lost. This is bigger than simply failing an English paper, Perran, this is about not being able to do all the things you want to do in life because you lack a complete skill set. Your writing is not as smart as you are and I am giving you an opportunity here to fix it.”
“If what you say is true, can you explain to me why it is then, that I get As not just in English, but in all my classes if…?” I flustered, but she was not only being logical and highly respectful, she was right and (it occurred to me), she didn’t have to be there at all. She was under no obligation to sort out the failure of other teachers. She could have washed her hands of me and saved herself a lot of hassle – I was a lot of hassle. I had to respect that she didn’t do that – even though I still didn’t agree with her – she was being genuine.
“Perran,” she explained, “teaching isn’t perfect, neither are teachers. It gets even more complicated when the student is not very approachable or open to discuss their problems, which, frankly…” and she hesitated, “well, teachers generally need to spend their time on students that have the most difficulty learning, not the smart ones who are only being difficult.”
“We believe…” she paused as she sipped at her coffee.
The whole “royal we” thing bothered me a little, although I had a pretty good idea who else was in on this. Larry Yakomovitch, the Vice Principal, had to be her partner in crime. She didn’t know me as well as Larry did, but she clearly was cut from the same cloth – outstanding human beings and exceptional teachers. And, while I believed that to be true, I was still not ready to go down – accept an F – without a fight.
“We believe… that your teachers up until, now have used your previous marks coupled with the facts that you are indeed highly intelligent, speak very well and are mature beyond your years (the conversation actually went like this, I am not just blow smoke up my own ass by means of a garden hose) to allow the quality of your written work to simply slip through the cracks.”
Quality. Quality resonated with me. Quality was an important issue for me thanks to early indoctrination of Robert Pirsig’s Metaphysics of Quality. “Other teachers failed you. I don’t blame you for being angry or frustrated. But you can jump up and down, call your lawyers, yell if you want to and still not write well. Or you can use your energy and direct it at the problem.”
“You are telling me that my teachers have not been doing their jobs. I can’t let this slide. You are saying your colleagues are culpable for my F and ‘my crap writing’ to paraphrase you, which means that I should be suing the school for non-performance. That is, even if I believe my work is as bad as you say it is and, as yet, I don’t.”
“Well, you could do that, or you can work with me after school and we can fix it. Let me be straight with you, I don’t get paid for putting in my time after school. Larry will also make himself available to help out. No other student in the school is going to get this kind of tuition so you need to ask yourself, is it really worth kicking up a fuss? Or can we just move on and fix it. If you kick up a fuss and don’t fix the problem, well, that is your decision, but you will pay for it the rest of your life. You can kick up a fuss and fix the problem too, which could eventually work, but proving where and with whom it all started, well that could take a dizzying amount of time and effort. However, we believe that if you spent your time and energy with us fixing the problem you will be a better person for it. Frankly, whatever you choose, in the end it will tell us exactly how smart you really are. I might point out at this school, with this faculty, the only teachers who you haven’t alienated are the ones offering to help you now. Everybody else is afraid of you or your family.”
“Surely someone must have come to this conclusion before? Why didn’t they help me if what you say is true?”
“I know that you won’t be surprised to hear that you are not the most approachable person and you intimidate most the staff, you terrify the Principal – students don’t normally do that. But Larry and I believe in your potential and we want to see you succeed so we decided to draw a line in the sand and say ‘no more’ and bring our concerns to your attention. It is my guess that nobody has given anything more than a cursory look at your work in many years and that’s how you got to be here. Also, and I stress this as sort of a general rule, not threatening teachers with lawyers can make them more amenable to helping you – but I’m just throwing that out there. Just a thought to mull over in your mind.”
“I hear what you are saying, but in all honesty, I am finding it almost impossible to believe I could get this far without it ever coming up.” All this was so new and coming so fast I was actually struggling to find my feet. “First, before I agree to anything, you are going to have to convince me that all those As were unearned and undeserved. I am on the honor roll. I have always been on the honor roll. I am one of the top three students in the school along with Richard and Anna. I must have some writing ability. I find it hard to believe that it’s non-existent. Is there any chance you simply didn’t understand my paper?”
“Well, now that you mention it yes, I didn’t understand it, my husband didn’t understand it, a friend of mine who is a published novelist didn’t understand it, Larry didn’t understand it, I am willing to bet that even God himself on a good day couldn’t understand it.”
“Okay, alright, no need to molly coddle me, geez, I get the point! Now I need you to show me.” And show me she did…
Next Week’s Blog: Bow to My Lady