Winning Words

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The message comes during sixth period. My sophomores, busy at the word processors, barely notice the boy who enters the Writing Center and hands me the “while you were out” memo.

Date: 5/19/92 10:59 a.m.
From: A. Schasser, Universal Pictures
Re: A contest. Your student won!

I blink and read the message again. Then I look up. My eyes scan the roomful of students. My gaze stops on Anne, hunched over an Apple IIe. In deep concentration, she twirls a lock of blond hair. She is, as always when she writes, the proverbial million miles away. I check the message for the number in New York and reach for the phone. I am aware that my students are listening now, intrigued by the phone call. Moments later, I am making polite conversation with Ms. Schasser as I mouth across the room to Anne, “You won!” Anne gasps, and the room erupts with applause.

I am an advocate of writing contests for students, if for no other reason than the slick materials that cross my desk look too good to ignore. So, each year, I hang posters in my classroom for this contest or that, make Xerox copies of official entry forms, and encourage my students to enter, reminding them (and myself) that the world, not the classroom, is the real audience of a writer. Yet, beneath my enthusiasm, I have always felt just a little doubt, just a little discomfort. Is encouraging students to enter nationwide writing contests a bit like encouraging them to buy lottery tickets? Are their dreams of fame, scholarship money, trips, and prizes only that, foolish dreams? And is a 15-year-old bursting with pride at his or her first complete short story, typed and polished in perfect manuscript form, mature enough to handle rejection? Unable to answer those questions, I rationalize. Students do need a wider audience than I can offer them. They need inspiration beyond the almighty “A.” They need to learn that rejection is not failure. And, after all, someone has to win.

Last May, Anne was that someone. The entry material from Scholastic Inc. arrived in my mailbox in early March. Tom Cruise gazed soulfully at me from a big, shiny poster. The headline read: “Send your story to the Far and Away Creative Writing Contest. Win a chance to meet Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, and Ron Howard.” I read the “assignment.” In conjunction with the film Far and Away, students were to write a short story about a voyage to America. The tale could be purely fictional or based on family history. The topic intrigued me. I knew my students had stories to tell. I scanned the material for prize information. There would be one winner from each state; 45 would win an interview, via satellite, with Cruise, Kidman, and Howard, and the other five would win cash scholarships and a trip to Los Angeles. Those prizes might not send me scurrying to my word processor, but I knew a “date” with Cruise and Kidman had the power to inspire more than one teenager. So I held up the poster. “Another writing contest,” I told my sophomores. “Some of you might...”

And then, in May, the message came, and suddenly Anne and I, and all my other students, came to believe that the “someone” who had to win could certainly be someone we knew. Writing contests were demystified, for now we knew someone who had “cracked the code.” And the key to that code, as we really had known all along, was talent and determination. Yet if these contests were suddenly less mystical, they were now more magical, for we could all watch Anne change from just another sophomore into someone who had actually talked to Tom Cruise (someone who, in a moment of pure excitement, told his wife, “Your husband is really hot!”). Anne became something of a celebrity as reporters came to school to interview and photograph her in the Writing Center. Stories about Anne and her success appeared in the local newspapers and on the cable TV news. Suddenly, everyone at school seemed to know Anne. Although she remained modest and self-effacing, her confidence grew, and her classmates saw that, too.

It was the day that I was picking up the cake, an enormous sheet cake shouting “Congratulations Anne,” that it hit me. Anne was a celebrity, and her moving and well-written story, the reminiscences of an elderly woman who fled Poland and the Nazis during World War II, had made her that. But what about the other stories, not just the other contest entries but the stories my students write every day? The story about lying breathless by the reservoir realizing childhood is almost over; the story about Daddy driving away in a blue Vega and never coming back; or the one about standing in the rain because you won’t go in until you hit 10 foul shots in a row. Story after story after story. A story that might make you proud because the teacher read it aloud but will never make you famous. A story that might earn you an A but will never win you a check or a conversation with a teen idol. A story that comes from deep inside but will never get you interviewed on the nightly news. A story that very few people in the world will ever know you wrote. I stared dimly at the cake, thought of Anne’s smiling face, and promised myself to think about this dilemma later.

Now it is later, and I am thinking about this, about how in the world of publishing there are As and Fs but never Cs. You win, you get published. You lose, you don’t. I’m thinking about this harder now as rejection slips and returned manuscripts fill my own mailbox. I have to try to remind myself that a “no thank you” doesn’t mean my work is bad, but I know it means it isn’t good enough. I’m disheartened and discouraged and yet still dreaming of fame. But what I really wish is that there were some middle ground, a place where every piece of writing that is honest and reflects some truth about living could be recognized as good, even if not quite good enough.

Perhaps students are lucky. They do get some middle ground. Their words are tacked to a bulletin board or read aloud in a writer’s circle. That’s often far more attention than the words of a struggling adult writer get. But I no longer think it’s enough. I watched Anne grow in her glory this spring, and it was like watching time-lapse photography. The judging staff of the Scholastic Writing Awards told Anne that she and her work were good, and suddenly, magically, she grew into a person who radiated confidence and enthusiasm, a person who trusted her words and her vision—a winner. But the truth is Anne was a winner long before the Scholastic judges read her story. The girl who sat at the word processor while I dialed the phone was already a real writer; Scholastic and Universal Studios did not make her that. Yet student writers—and adult writers—all search for that outside affirmation, that tap on the shoulder that says, “You’re good.”

I am thinking now of ways to give my students this tap on the shoulder. I am thinking that first they need to talk about fame and glory, to realize that it is secondary to the writing and not the mark of quality. Students need to understand that it is not the approving nod of an editor, judge, or teacher that makes a piece of writing good. They need to see that there is inherent quality in writing that is honest and comes from the heart.

I will show them my rejection slips and my stories and tell them that though I, too, long to see my name in a glossy magazine, that will not, and cannot, be the absolute measure of my success. I am not Anne Tyler or Lorrie Moore, but I am a writer. And my words, like theirs, have worth.

Students, though, need more than sermonizing. And so I am searching for ways to recognize them and their words. Papers pinned to the bulletin boards and stories read in response groups give gentle taps, but students are sophisticated and know the world is so much bigger than the writing classroom. This year, then, I will challenge my students to send their words out into the world. How? In letters—letters to the editor, to heroes and idols, to principals and presidents, to long lost friends, to anyone who may write back and let my students know that their words shook one corner of the world. In essays—essays written not for my grade book but to send out to the world; essays on underwater adventures, adolescent anxiety, and baseball cards; essays that the Writer’s Market tells us magazines such as Diver, Seventeen, and Sports Collectors Digest are eager to receive. And in stories—stories for children in the local elementary schools, stories for the high school literary magazine, and, of course, stories for those big contests that “someone has to win.”

I understand that this plan cannot guarantee each of my students a wink from Tom Cruise, but I believe it can guarantee them a good firm tap on the shoulder from someone out there in the world who will be saying, in their own way, “What you wrote matters and so of course do you.” This year, all my students will know they have each individually earned their slice of cake. And the writing on top will say, “Congratulations Class!”

Vol. 04, Issue 07, Pages 37-38

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