I am suffering from writer's block, I fear. The longer I sit here the longer I think of nothing to say. That is...rare...because although it's not uncommon for me to run out of things to say it's quite uncommon for me to run out of things to write. But continuing my academic theme, I'll share a story about my English 314 class at BYU, Writing about Literature.
The class started out alright. We were going to be reading Persuasion by Jane Austen. I had never read any of Austen's books before and I haven't read any since. Don't hate me. Hate my teacher. She ruined Jane Austen for me. What could have been a perfectly wonderful introduction into the world of sappy classics turned into complete drudgery. I read Persuasion nine times that semester. I wrote ten papers on it, I think. It was dreadful. I wanted to burn that book at the end of the semester. It's been 5 and a half years (can that be?) yet I still have it and every time I see it I shudder...and have to fight the urge to throw it across the room.
I took it in Fall 2003, which was an awkward stage in my academic career. I should have been a Freshman but I had already been going to college for a year and had nearly finished my associates degree, so I was technically a junior. I was prepared for the class academically, but I still felt out of place. I was one of the few in the class not majoring in English; I also felt rather juvenille, compared to everyone else in the class.
Near the beginning of the semester, probably within the first few weeks, we were assigned to bring in a draft of our first paper to trade with someone in the class. Then we'd do a peer review, a "constructive criticism," if you will.
I was assigned to be partners with a girl (who shall remain anonymous simply because I can't remember her name), who was probably about 10 years older than me. She had 4 kids, and had been published, more than once, in a magazine. I know this because our teacher, Penny Byrd, wanted us all to be good friends and gave us a few minutes to introduce ourselves before we traded papers. This girl liked to write fiction, mostly, I think I remember. And she had already completed a few novels. Yet to be published. And she was hoping to graduate next year.
When it was my turn to introduce myself I was like, "Oh, hi, [insert name]. Nice to meet you. I'm Nancy. I'm, uh, 18. And I have never been published. But lots of teachers say they like my stuff. And I like to use semi-colons every now and then."
I never know how to introduce myself. Besides, she had already intimidated me with her introduction and I hadn't even read her draft yet.
We traded papers. At least, we tried to trade papers. Mostly I just gave her my draft and she gave me the first paragraph of her paper because that was all she had written. Naturally, I finished reading her draft first since it was only one paragraph long. I jotted some things down so that I could remember what to say to her and then waited for her to finish reading my paper.
When it was time to exchange feedback, I went first. I learned how to give constructive criticism in Canada and did my best to follow the protocol: Say something nice. Hint at maybe suggesting improvement. Say something else nice. Finish off with a big smile.
"This was a really good paragraph. I think the rest of your paper is going to be really interesting. You missed a comma here. I didn't really understand this part, but it was great, overall." Big smile.
She yanked her paper out of my hands and glared at me.
"This?" she said, like some sort of a Jane Austen connoisseur, dangling my paper in front of my face disdainfully, "Was awful. I don't even know where to begin."
She returned my paper by dropping in on my desk, suggesting, as it fell, that I drop the class and try a freshman course.
While everyone else chatted about their papers, the book, the upcoming weekend, wedding plans and so on, I spent the remainder of the class staring at the front page of my paper, doing my best not to cry. I have no idea what what's-her-name did. I couldn't look at her.
I ended up staying in the class and ended up getting an A- (which isn't bad, although I probably cried about that, too).
Sometimes I wish I was braver back then. If I could have spoken my mind to her would I have been able to resesitate some of the self-esteem she crushed?
Would it have been so hard to say, "Well, at least I finished my draft. And speaking of finishing something, you didn't have to be in this class with me. You could have finished your bachelor's degree years ago!"
Sometimes, though, it is best to say nothing at all, especially when you don't have anything nice to say.
Perhaps she was having a bad day. Perhaps her kids had been up the whole night with the stomach flu. Perhaps she never learned how to give constructive criticism and really didn't know where to begin. Perhaps she was intimidated by the sheer awesomeness of my paper. Perhaps she never watched Bambi and so never heard Thumper say, "If you can't say something nice... don't say nothing at all."
I don't know what made her say what she said, and as much as I wish she hadn't said it sometimes I'm glad she did. It makes me think twice about what I say to others. I don't ever want to be a "what's-her-name" to somebody else.