English 521:
Composition Theory and Pedagogy

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Intelligence, Sensitivity, and Self-doubt

by Anna Sturges

At the end of my freshman year of high school, my boyfriend broke up with me. He was the only boyfriend I had ever had and I was completely devastated. I had always written a little on my own and had been good in English classes, but I never wrote as much as I did that summer. I was hurt, angry, and feeling incredibly insecure. Writing was my salvation. It was the only way I had to express my feelings because I did not really have anyone to talk to about my feelings and concerns. For the entire summer, I moped around and wrote depressing poems constantly. I was miserable.

When school started again, I was not very happy about it at all. I would have to see my ex-boyfriend everyday with his new girlfriend. I tried not to let it bother me, but I couldn’t help it. I spent my time alone during lunch reading or writing pieces about the things I dealt with that day in school and about the boy who spun me into this writing frenzy. My classes, for the most part, were not very interesting and I had lost all interest in being at school. My English class was a writing class and the only class that seemed at all appealing. The teacher, Mrs. Forman-Pemberton, seemed really nice and I thought that it could be a fun semester.

We were given assignments to write about, but, for a change, the topics we were given were interesting . I was used to writing about Willy Loman, the pathetic hero, and Hester Pryne. Mrs. Forman-Pemberton gave us topics that I could become engaged with and I actually wanted to do a good job, not just get the assignment done as quickly and as painlessly as possible. The choices we were given for our papers included “solitude versus loneliness”, “never again”, and “learning from failure.” At that time in my life, I could have written epics about all of these topics, so I worked really hard on these assignments. I was tired of writing about the significance of the rosebush outside the jail in The Scarlet Letter. It meant a lot to me to have my papers turn out well. I tried hard and I wanted my work to be considered good. These papers were written about my life and me working out my own problems so I wanted them to be well written and reflected truly how I felt. I wanted Mrs. Forman-Pemberton to appreciate my work as well. A lot of the pieces I was writing were still very angry and personal, so I was very insecure about what other people would think about my writing. To my surprise, the teacher and the other students who had to critique my work did appreciate and understand what I was trying to articulate. I wrote poems about melting Barbie dolls and my struggles dealing with not being popular and how I could accept that part of my life, rather than just feeling bad about it the entire time. I was surprised that I kept getting really good grades. The comments Mrs. Forman-Pemberton wrote on my papers were so supportive of what I was trying to accomplish and of me as a writer, that the little confidence I had grew. I felt more comfortable to try new things and experiment in my writing. She would write a comment about a character in one of my stories and end up complimenting me in some way. On my final exam she wrote “The character has a lot of reality to her, an interesting combination of intelligence, sensitivity, and self-doubt (like the author?).” While I suppose it does not sound utterly flattering, at the time it was a perfect description of myself, at least the self-doubt part.

The classroom experience was a little frightening at first because Mrs. Forman-Pemberton wanted other people to read our texts and offer advice on how to improve them. I had been writing pieces knowing that only one person would be reading them and the prospect of my peers reading my most personal feeling was terrifying. It turned out to be one of the best thing that could have happened. The two girls, Katharine and Bina, who were in the group with me were people I sort of knew, but not very well. I thought of them as two of the smart girls and did not know if my work would be anywhere as well written as either of theirs. Their work was really good and I was in awe of them, but the most surprising part was that they admired my pieces as much as I did theirs. They were the first people whom I became friends with for intellectual reasons, not for the way they dressed or their musical tastes.

The three of us were all going through similar issues in our lives and could identify with each other through our writing. I found it easier to express myself more coherently in writing, rather than in person and felt free to write about things that I would not normally tell people. Since I did not feel the same restrictions in my writing as I did in conversation, Katharine and Bina knew me a lot better than most other people. “The Barbie Poem,” that’s what we called a poem I wrote about my neighbor, my ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend. Katharine loved it. She made copies of it and made me submit it to the literary magazine the school puts out once a year. The poem was all of my anger about this one girl, but more about my anger toward all of the people who thought they were better than me because they were prettier and more popular. Katharine’s enthusiasm and support of that poem, for example, gave me a sense that I was doing something right if one of the smart girls liked my work that much. She really supported my work and liked my quirky style of telling stories. It finally seemed like people believed that what I was doing was good and worth something.

We were not only assigned to write poetry and short pieces. Mrs. Forman-Pemberton would assign longer pieces of writing and would let the class spend weeks of class time working in the computer lab. This was my favorite time in the semester. I could work on my writing without being distracted by having to eat dinner or a TV show I felt I needed to watch. The sessions in the computer room were four times a week for almost an hour. This allowed me to write the paper and have plenty of time and opportunity to revise and rework my piece. Typically, I procrastinate until the last night to finish the assignment, but in this class we had so much time that I really gave my work the full attention it deserved. I had time to work with ideas in my head before I had to write the paper in a mad dash before class in the morning. Another advantage to having class time to work on my assignments was that Katharine, Bina, and I were there together. We could bounce ideas off each other and read each other’s work before it was finished so we could offer advice right then. If I tried one thing in my work and asked one of them if it seemed appropriate and they said no, then I could try something different right away. It helped to sit and think about it with someone who had a different perspective.

Writing during the course of this class helped me to deal with a lot of issues in my life. I started taking the class with a miserable attitude toward just about everything, but as I worked on my writing and made friends with people who shared the same interests I did, I worked though the issues I had when I started the class. I could now move onto different concerns developing in my life. I began to become very interested in ideas about feminism, the ecology, and politics. My writing changed to help me deal with these concerns and to develop my own ideas about these topics. At this time in my life, writing was a growing process for me. I got to figure out a lot of things in my life that otherwise I might not have resolved. People have told me that this was the time in their lives when they started drinking and taking drugs to deal with the problems they faced. I feel that I, at least, developed a skill that I have used throughout my life and resolved some of the issues I was facing, rather than drinking them away.

I kept taking classes with Mrs. Forman-Pemberton throughout high school. I think I took every class she taught. She inspired me to work harder and gave me the confidence to try new things in my work and in my life. I truly admire her and her way of teaching. I am seriously thinking about becoming a teacher because of my experiences in her classes. If I could do for one person what she did for me, then I would feel like I had done my job well. The things I learned in her class have stayed with me and influenced many of the things I have since done in my writing and personally. She taught me how to use writing to understand my own problems, which was the first step for me as a writer. I now try to use writing to illustrate the problems of others and the strange situations people are put into in this culture. Without her influence in my life, I may never have had some of the truly enlightening experiences of my academic life, the ones I am sure to encounter as I continue to develop my writing, and the ones I hope to experience as a teacher.

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