mellymell: (Default)
[personal profile] mellymell
I wrote this up raw on 750words this morning (my first visit there all month, which is just sad). I'm not sure if I might edit it and put it up on my writer's blog as well. It does contain somewhat pertinent information to my identity as a writer.

Oh, right. I have a writer's blog now and a pen name M.L. Hamilton (a combination of my first two initials and my mother's maiden name). I certainly hope I don't discover anymore hidden interests that might turn into major personal ventures, because I'm stretched pretty thin as far as alternate identities go.

Anyway, without further ado, if you ever wondered about my ponderings on what it means to me to be "well read" or what sort of English student I was as a 17-year-old...

I've read a couple of essays this morning on being "well read": what that means and if it's attainable, depending on how you define it. The sad truth of the matter is that our lifetimes are far too short to take in all the world has to offer and even if we were superhuman and able to take in all that the world holds today, it continues to pump out a steady stream of art and music and film and poetry and fiction and non-fiction... it's simply an impossible task and we just have to surrender to that fact and enjoy whatever we can. But at the same time, isn't it wonderful that we live in a world where there is more than we could possible ever take in?

The NPR essay put it in numbers: if you were to start at age 15 and read two books per week until you were 80, that would add up to something like 6500 books in a lifetime, which is a rather tiny library in the grand scheme of things. I found myself wishing I cared about being well read as a 15-year-old.

No, when I was 15, or rather around 16 or so, I didn't so much as care about getting to English class on time. It was my first class of the day. I was almost always late. If I was late enough, I'd skip altogether. My morning commute to school had me hop on I-565 for a brief stretch and if the clock said I was going to be more than 10 minutes late--again--I'd just keep going, even driving to Birmingham on occasion. I'd get in trouble, of course. If I didn't show up by the end of second period, there was that inevitable call to my dad at work to see if I was sick or had a reasonable excuse for not being at school for the day. I quickly learned to work around this set back (as that's how I viewed it, a set back). So long as I arrived by 10am or so, I was pretty well guaranteed that phone call would not be made and so long as I showed up at the change of classes, another tardy mark would not be made.

Seems like an awful lot of work to skirt a class I actually enjoyed. My teacher was a former professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. She was fantastic. Engaging, wise... and ever disappointed in my utter lack of effort in her class. When I actually did my homework assignments, she was thrilled with my work. I think that's why she was so hard on me when I didn't, which was far more often than when I did. When we were working on literature, I was a sponge. I understood the readings. I didn't fall asleep. I could analyze poetry without the blank stares of my classmates who just didn't get it. I would debate with her, even, that perhaps we could never know exactly what the author meant without knowing the author personally. I brought up in class one day something that I think frustrated her (because of the tangent it could create in her somewhat structured class): the idea that each piece means something different to every person who reads it and who were any of us to say we understood what the writer meant. How in the world is she supposed to teach kids how to get correct answers on a test when I'm just confusing everyone with my endless variables. She corrected me somewhat, saying there was a definitive meaning to be discovered, but I think I earned her respect there and things suddenly got a lot harder because she expected more out of someone who could cobble together that sort of philosophical debate at 16-years-old.

Unsurprisingly, I failed the second semester of my junior year of English and had to attend summer school. Summer school was so irritatingly easy; I couldn't possibly fail. I was the only kid in my class from a private school. My teacher was from the school I would have been zoned for (one of the lowest rated high schools in Huntsville, hence the reason I did not attend it). She and my classmates were a bit baffled once I began to open my mouth and could not understand why I was there. I was completely honest with them. I had no reason not to be. I was never going to see these kids again. The first day of class, she had us write an introductory paragraph that we would read to the class, telling a bit about ourselves, our interests and finally, an honest reason of why we were stuck in school that summer instead of being out like everyone else.
"I didn't try. I didn't do my homework. I didn't do the required readings. I showed up to class late or not at all. I didn't try. That's why I'm here this summer."

No one else in the class was so honest or took personal responsibility for their situation. The teacher even thanked me for such brutal honesty. She had nothing but praise for me. I did all her assignments, usually finishing in class time. I always showed up for school on time, even though it was a full hour earlier and a much further drive. We had one big project due for the "semester" (which I think was 4-6 weeks of half days). We had to pick a theme (love, death, something along those lines) and find 10 poems by 10 different poets and illustrate them with photos or found images or collages or something. I chose loneliness, because I knew she'd be drowning in love themed ones (because those are the easiest to find) and because I was an angsty 17-year-old who was having boy problems at the time and it seemed like a good idea. I illustrated all my poems (one of which was a Jim Morrison poem) by hand. We had time in the library during our summer school hours to find our poems, and it took me no time at all to reach my quota of 10. I quickly sketched out, in the span of a couple of nights, 10 sketches for my poems and another for my cover (because we had to have a cover page as well). I took it to Kinko's the night before it was due and got it all copied and bound as per the requirements and handed it in indifferently the next morning.

The woman practically swooned over the thing. In her grading marks, she said it brought tears to her eyes (presumably because she was assuming I had some inner turmoil going on to drive me to choose loneliness as a theme, when really, I was just being dramatic). And she just went on and on, even in front of the class, hailing my project as a perfect example. She told me privately that she wished her students would put forth this sort of effort. To me it was a simple assignment. I didn't have to write 10 poems, I just had to find some written by others and type them up. The sketches were quick and dirty and seemed easier to me to do than to paw through tons of magazines photocopying things that wouldn't quite illustrate effectively. I could even tell the ones I rushed as my deadline approached. But what seemed effortless to me was A+ work to a public school teacher.

There were a few things were going on in my head here. First, I realized just how fortunate I was to have an opportunity to get a better education than I would have if I had gone to the school I was zoned for and I was squandering it. Second, I was under the gun to do well in summer school, since that's like Last Chance Saloon right there, and was relieved to find just how freaking easy it was. Third, I was completely regretful that this teacher, who maybe deserved a little boost of inspiration from a student who seemed to care enough to perform, got that performance from me rather than my awesome private school teacher, to whom I suddenly wished to prove myself.

But I never got the chance. I kicked my Christian Private School to the curb my senior year in favor of homeschooling. It wasn't the wrong decision. With all the life-changing things that happened my senior year, being able to work through school at my own pace and even simultaneously work a job, was a godsend. I lost a very dear friend that year to an unexpected heart attack one week after her 18th birthday and a couple of months before graduation, my dad married my step-mom and moved out of the house leaving my brother and I on our own.

But, of all the teachers I had over the years, I always wanted to go back and tell Mrs. Greenleaf, "I might not have shown it in class, but you made a permanent impression upon me and I'll forever try to make it up to you, even if you never know it." Now I'm staring down this long road ahead as I work on writing a series of novels, and hopefully many things after, and I can't help but think that she deserves to know what a regretful student I am.

I'm still catching up on all the things I should have read in her class (among others). I never did summer readings (except for Walden). I rarely did class readings, unless they were short and/or were from the Transcendentalists (because I was a hippy). And now I'm trying to move forward and simultaneously go back while I attempt to make myself "well read". In actuality, I'm there. I'm finally there, even though there's still a huge pile of classical literature I've never cracked open (many titles I'm embarrassed to even admit). But I read with that unquenchable thirst for all that someone has to say and that is my definition of "well read". I read because I love to read and because I love what I'm reading. And if I don't, I read it anyway because I want to be able to articulate why I don't like it. I've tried to structure my reading, but I just can't. I can't take something in until I'm ready and so I just sporadically skip around from genre to genre, fiction to non-fiction, classical to contemporary, it really doesn't matter. So long as the fancy strikes, I'll read it cover to cover and relish every minute of it.
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