A few weeks ago my dad called to tell me that he had been visiting with my 8th grade English teacher, Mrs. Betty Zgarba, and that she had something to give me. My dad is a painting contractor, and he has worked for many of my former teachers over the years, so I’m used to hearing him pass along their ‘hellos’ and ‘remember whens…’ But this was different. I probably haven’t seen Mrs. Zgarba for well over 20 years. What could she possibly have to give me?
A paper I wrote in 1983, it turns out.
It was a bit endearing, I must admit, to listen to my 72 year-old father detail the particulars.
“The title is ‘Mrs. Harper-Numero Uno’, it was written September 8, 1983, it’s 2 ½ pages, and you made an A+. There’s a couple of red marks, but just a couple. And,” he added most pointedly, “she wrote ‘very good work’ at the bottom of the last page.” I had no idea who Mrs. Harper was. But Dad, with the artifact in hand, knew exactly who I had once memorialized, but now forgotten. “This was your art teacher in Kansas City.”
Ah, yes. My 7th grade art teacher, who had given me extra credit for every sketch of E.T. that I could doodle and daub. Certain that my work was worthy of official Reece’s Pieces marketing and encouraged by a mixture of bonus points and instructor praise, I churned them out at least 3-4 times a week. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on that essay and see what exactly I had written in that tiny window of long-past days, somewhere between the landfall of Hurricane Alicia and my much anticipated 14th birthday. I wanted to step back into the past, most certainly. But I also wanted an answer to a very important question: What was my writing like?
I remember a lot about English class in 1983. Sitting in front of the dashing Clint Roberds, sheepishly slouching to the left or right when his buddy, Shawn Roberts, leaned back to talk over and around me. Waiting for my braces to be removed. Dreading another warm bologna sandwich at lunch. Struggling to understand sentence diagramming. Daydreaming about Duran Duran.
But I don’t remember much about writing, or at least what we wrote about in school. I wrote poetry and short stories, most of which I still have. And in high school I poured everything I had into the school newspaper. But what about the other writer, the academic writer? What was she all about? Here was my chance to find out.
What I found out, once I got the paper in my hands, was that 8th grade Lisa was corrected multiple times for addressing her reader as ‘you’, her handwriting was overly loopy, and her lack of understanding sentence diagramming didn’t prevent her from writing a cohesive story. I’m sure there was a lot of room for improvement in that essay, but you wouldn’t have known it by Mrs. Zgarba’s cautious use of the red pen. A couple of incorrectly spelled words were noted, but other than the reminder about ‘you’ (which, I must say, I still love and embrace), she had pretty much left the paper alone.
Which is really the way it should be. Here in our writing center, we tell students that it is not our job to hijack their writing, because it belongs to them. We aren’t here to ‘fix’ or edit papers, because that is their learning journey to make. We are here to cheerfully encourage, to gently nudge, and to openly share resources and wisdom in a spirit of collaboration and respect.
Writers should see themselves in their writing, not us. If we do our job right, then they, too, should be able to pick up their work one day and get a clear picture of who they once were. They should see their own progress, their own strengths. They should be able to value what is, but also hope for what could be.
What did Mrs. Zgarba teach me? Looking only at her little red footprints on those faded sheets of notebook paper, I can see a few things. But it’s what she and other great teachers like her didn’t leave on that paper that actually made me a better writer. Critical correction would have crippled the quiet little writer inside. That, coupled with knobby knees and a lack of finesse in applying makeup, could have sent me over the edge.
Thank you, Mrs. Zgarba, for letting me just be me. For letting me own my own page. It’s what I try to do for the writers I work with every day. And thank you, most of all, for helping me to see that despite all my insecurities and anxiety, I had something to offer.
Even if Clint Roberds never saw it.