My daughter, Jennifer, slammed the front door, threw her books on the floor, and screeched, “I hate Mr. Johnston! He gave me a B minus! I’ll never write another poem again!” With that, Jen tossed her paper, marked in red with the B minus scrawled prominently at the bottom, across the dining room table, where I sat marking my own students’ assignments.
I did not even know that she had been asked to write a poem, something she had never done before. Jen was a child who did not reveal her emotions. And because her mother was a domineering English teacher, she resisted creative writing, poetry in particular. So this assignment was a real risk for her.
Privately and bravely, she had worked on her ideas to the best of her 8th grade ability. The result: a five-stanza poem titled “Reunited,” on which her teacher wrote “lacks specificity,” “so-o-o vague,” “what?” and “B minus.”
My eyes filled with tears as I remembered myself as a 10-year-old in a 5th grade art class, assigned to draw a red barn from a bulletin board model. I waited anxiously as my teacher, commenting on each student’s attempt to copy the barn, moved from desk to desk. When Mrs. Cooper leaned over and scrutinized my drawing, she squinted, frowned, and said scornfully, “Sure doesn’t look like Kathleen’s.”
Kathleen was my best friend, and although she was in the bottom reading and math groups, she was remarkably talented in art. Her barns—well, they looked like barns. Her use of color and perspective made flat paper become three-dimensional wooden structures surrounded by rolling hills and golden wheat fields. They were the delight of horses, cows, farmhands, and her teacher. My barn, as Mrs. Cooper said, sure didn’t look like Kathleen’s.
That was the end of art for me. Humiliated and rejected, I finished elementary school with C’s in art and never drew publicly again.
And here was Jennifer, my child, giving her teacher a gift, a profound expression of self. Her reward: “Lacks specificity,” “so-o-o vague,” “what?” and the final judgment, “B minus.” My reaction was immediate. I wondered why Mr. Johnston had not responded to the feelings in Jen’s poem. Why he had not asked her privately about the ideas or images he found unclear before writing his disparaging and discouraging comments. Why he had not found at least one aspect of her technique, ideas, or feelings to praise. He had the chance all teachers have to encourage and nurture his student, to help her develop as a writer with her own honest voice. Most importantly, he could have helped her understand that through writing she could express important ideas and her deepest personal feelings. Yet he chose to respond only critically. I ached for my child. In fact, I mourned the death, the killing, of her as a poet.
“May I see your poem?” I hesitantly asked in my softest, least authoritative, least teacherly manner, expecting and fearing rejection. Surprised when Jen agreed, I took the piece of notebook paper and silently read the lines printed neatly in green ink. At first, I was not sure what the poem meant. I am still confused by the middle stanza, but the tone was clear. There was a sense of desperation and solitude in the opening that gave way to peace and even joy in the resolution. There were words about death and choice that made me wonder if she were thinking about the death of her infant brother when she was 5, or my mother when Jen was 9, or her grandfather last year, or her 7th grade classmate killed tragically in a bicycle accident. At worst, I feared that she was musing on her own mortality.
I noticed, too, the condensed language, the repetition of certain words, the use of similes and appropriate, though simple, imagery. I understood her teacher’s concern that in places the language was vague or confusing, but I was overwhelmed by the revelation of Jen’s feelings to this teacher she obviously trusted.
And I remembered my barn.
For years, I had hoped that writing would be an outlet for my child’s most private feelings. Jen had witnessed much illness and death, but there were no discussions in our silent family of feelings about these losses. I also hoped that she would come to love writing as an art form as well as a vehicle for self-expression.
I thanked her for sharing her writing with me, told her I was moved by her thoughts, and said I could understand her feelings toward her teacher.
“Why not make an appointment with Mr. Johnston?” I suggested. “Maybe he can explain how you can revise your paper.”
When Jen went to see him, she began defensively, asking, “Why did I get a B minus?”
“Because it’s a bad poem,” he told her. After he explained what Jen could do to “fix” the poem, she agreed to revise it for a higher mark. His major concern was style and structure, not her meaning and emotion. The focus of the conference seemed to be on raising the B minus, Jen’s grade becoming more important than her vision.
I try to handle my students’ poetry differently. The language of a poem evolves from our subconscious and, like our dreams, is telescoped and heightened. Often mystically unclear and symbolic, the meaning is not fully known, perhaps even to the writer. Each student’s vision is unique and precious and must be sensitively received and criticized. As often as possible, students in my writing classes engage in small-group discussions and peer editing. They comment on meaning, imagery, poetic devices, and overall effect. During the writing process, I meet frequently with each student to hear and discuss the work without the “threat” of grades. Sometimes, I share my own writing with them and invite their responses. They are wonderfully supportive of each other and of me.
For students to learn and to recognize the importance of education, they first must feel valued and inspired. As classroom teachers, we are in a key position to convey that sense of self-worth and inspiration. We should remember our own early educational experiences and empathize with our students.
My barn was more than a poor version of Kathleen’s, and Jen’s poem is more than the grade she received. They are both the individual works of artists who fearfully offer their creations as revelations of themselves.
A version of this article appeared in the September 29, 1982 edition of Education Week as The Gift Of Self