Dear Mrs. Schuster,
It’s been over thirty years and I’ve thought about you often. When I first walked into your Honors English Class in ninth grade at Pomona Middle School, I was so excited. You see, we moved a lot as I grew up and we had just moved 3X over the previous two years. I was so happy to start fresh in the beginning of a class school year for the first time in years. My family was finally settled in a district where I would get the chance to live out my entire high school career without moving again. What you didn’t know was that while I was a straight “A” English student in Connecticut, where we had previously lived, those two years away we never covered grammar in my English classes. That was going to be reviewed in 9th grade and I’d already left, so when I entered your 9th grade class, I was at a distinct disadvantage since it was covered the previous years.
You see, when I met you, I was so enthusiastic about English class because I loved reading and writing. I remember introducing myself to you and telling you that I was the younger cousin of two boys you had a few years previously. Did you know a look of distaste immediately passed across your features? Had I known that my cousins were terrors to you, I wouldn’t have said anything, because from that moment on you looked and treated me with utter disdain, as if I were vermin by association. When I had problems with grammar, you never helped me. You never bothered to find out my needs, even though I clearly remember asking for help. I had no idea what those “Grammar Trees” were. To this day I am not skilled in this area, though I have tried to learn.
You berated me and treated me poorly for months, so let me remind you of the moment you finally crushed me. I was flummoxed why you seemed to hate me and why you were always so critical of my work. I didn’t understand. I had always enjoyed my English classes and read voraciously. So when you gave us an extra credit assignment to write a simple book report, I remember thinking, “I’m going to create something that will ‘wow’ her and be really interesting. Instead of the typical dry book report, I decided to write it like an interview and interview the main character in the novel.” I remember thinking that my idea was so cool and I was really excited. It was supposed to be just a page long, but I made it two. I remember the day you walked around the room handing students back their assignments. I remember seeing the 5+ points on all my friend’s papers. When you finally got to my desk, I remember you smiling and for a moment I thought I’d finally won you over. When I stared at the big red Zero in shock, I clearly remember you saying, “That was the worst piece of writing I ever saw” and then you walked on. I remember crumpling up the paper right in front of you and throwing it onto the floor, saying “I give up.” You crushed me that day and I gave up on you, and writing.
Mrs. Schuster, for years I never wrote anything again if I could help it. My confidence was shot. My belief in my ability to do a good job in an English class was shot. And it was because of you. I wasn’t confidant enough to dismiss your actions for whatever ulterior motive you had.
But know this. When I went to college, I had an idea in my head for a story. I grappled greatly with writing it, the indecision that it would be any good weighed heavily on my mind. I worried that someone would tell me that “it was the worst piece of writing they’d ever seen.” And then one day I honestly said “Screw you, Mrs. Schuster. I don’t care what you think, I’m going to write it.” And I did. I wrote the first draft of a fantasy novel titled, THE RUBY AMULET. Was it good? No way, it needed a ton of work. Was the grammar terrible? You bet. But you know what? I wrote the entire book and I said a ‘big kiss goodbye’ to you because I decided that no one, especially a mean, bitter, nasty old teacher, was going to dictate what I could and couldn’t do with my life.
It was not because of you that I became of writer, but I became a writer IN SPITE of you. I pushed myself, I got an editor, I learned the trade. I’ve published seven novels now and a host of short stories and not one of them is because of you.
So I leave you with this. I want you to know that you didn’t crush me, and that after thirty years of thinking of ways to tell you what I thought of what you did to me, I finally feel better. I don’t know if you’re even alive any more to read this, but you should know, for this student, you influenced me… but not in the way a teacher should. Thank God I gained enough confidence and moxie to not let you influence me for the rest of my life. My one hope is that other students you may have done this to persevered as well.
Signed Your 9th Grade Honors English Student,
Thanks for nothing,
Elyse Sussman Salpeter