Sunday, January 5, 2014

Paying It Forward

I recently had the opportunity to speak to an Advanced Senior English class at a local high school. The teacher, an old friend, asked me to talk about writing. She had heard me speak last summer at the awards ceremony for the Chautauqua Festival’s creative writing competition. She thought that some of the ideas I had left with that group might inspire her young writing students. What she didn’t realize is how much it would inspire me.

As I mentally prepared for the presentation, I thought about my own Advanced Senior English class and the wonderfully inspiring teacher who made such a positive impression on me. Her name was Mrs. Doris Hudson. She not only taught English, but drama as well and was the advisor of the school’s forensics team. Needless to say, I was involved in all three of those endeavors and eagerly soaked up her knowledge and encouragement. As the years have passed, I have wondered where she was. She left the area not long after I graduated high school, possibly for one of Carolinas. I especially wished I could find her, when I published my first book. I would love to send her a copy. She is a very good memory of my teenage years.

I thought back to how it felt to be that age. You give off the opinion that you think you know everything and all the adults around you know nothing. I don’t really think that most of these teens, then and now, really truly in their hearts feel that way. They just begin to realize that they know that adulthood is around the corner. They want so desperately for those “older folks” to not see them as children. They want to begin to be accepted as equals. What we realize later in life is that we never exactly get accepted as equal by those who are older than us, especially when it is 20 or 30 years or more. Because, that age difference never goes away. It just seems different to us as we live the adult life with them.

They were a stoic audience at first. Polite, but bored. I knew that the only real way to reach them, to convince them to consider what I was saying, was by making the presentation conversational, by making them laugh.

I told them that no matter what profession they went into, they would be writing every day. Even that excuse that they were going to have to come up with on Friday night when they got home late would be writing. They would have to carefully choose their words and form their story to have any hope that their parents would believe them. I could see the smiles in the room after that. Maybe this older lady (sigh, that’s me) is okay. Maybe she has something worthwhile to say.

I gave them examples of professions where good basic writing skills could have powerful ramifications, such as a police officer writing up a complex report regarding an investigation or the nurse who must write clear, concise sentences about someone’s medical condition.

For those who wanted to be professional writers, the advice was simple. Write every day. Allow yourself to be edited and critiqued. It’s the difference between success and failure. And, don’t just follow that age old adage to “write what you know.” Personally, I think it is some of the worst advice ever given to writers. Write about what you don’t know. That’s what will stretch your creativity. That’s what will hone your skills.

I approached my short time with them as a means to “pay it forward,” as a movie of the same name illustrated a few years ago. I hoped that I had reached some of them, in some small way. I hoped I had made a difference. Within an hour after I left, I got a message from my friend, the teacher, saying that her students loved it! And then came a quote from one of the young ladies in the room about me. “Now, she is just somebody I would like to go to dinner with!”

I made a connection. That young person understood what I was trying to convey and got enough of a glimpse of my personality that she found me interesting. How rare is that with a thirty-year age difference! It’s one of the nicest compliments I have ever received.

1 comment:

  1. Forensics was my first attempt to break out of my "shy" box. I was a competitive story teller. I never had the fortune to meet teachers who tried to inspire me. Fortunately for me, I took from everyone and everything outside of the school I escaped from and have been inspired ever since. Those students were most blessed to have gotten to catch a spark from you...and blessed to have had a teacher who understood the importance of it.