By Vincent Caravana
I never liked to write when I was in elementary school; I saw it as a chore. I can vividly remember complaining to my mother when I was given an assignment—stamping my feet and throwing a tantrum—and I can equally remember her response: “In the time that you’ve been complaining about writing this, you could have been halfway done already!” I moped back to my room and began scrawling out what was required of me. Later on that year, Miss Richmond told me my handwriting was awful and I got a C (my only one!) in penmanship. I again complained to my mother and told her to receive a grade on your handwriting was “stupid.” She told me to try harder. Such is the power of writing!
In junior high school, things weren’t much better. Again I completed the obligatory assignments. Again I dreaded them. I learned the five-paragraph formula for an essay and, as a linear thinker, I employed it on every subsequent assignment throughout junior high and high school. In this “pre-rubric” era, my grades came back in increments of five points and a 90 or better with scarcely any attention to the comments written on my paper would close out this assignment and my learning experience with it. Mission accomplished. Until the next time…
In between memorizing Macbeth monologues and creating a movie poster for The Great Gatsby, an occasional research paper would be assigned. This was no problem. We spent days in the library during class, and my friends and I had it down to a science: If four sources were required, you found five, listed four in your Works Cited page, and plagiarized completely from the fifth. Grade of 95? Check. “Watch the spacing in your Works Cited page,” was my commentary. Will do.
In English 12H (not English 12 AP for fear there would be too much writing), Mr. Merrow started to give us daily writing assignments. “For what are you most grateful in life?” “Write page 284 of your autobiography.” “Write about anything you want today. It’s a free write.” (“Anything I want?! Please tell me what the assignment is.”) This went on for several months, deep into my senior year.
“I haven’t gotten any of the grades back for these,” I said one day. He replied that he knew and told me to keep writing. Sometime after that we were assigned an essay to write on Man’s Search for Meaning. My grade was an 85 and I was crushed. Hadn’t I followed the five-paragraph formula? Hadn’t I explained in my introductory paragraph the three things I would talk about in my developmental paragraphs? Hadn’t I had a thesis and an engaging opening? This was not possible. I immediately complained to the classmates at my neighboring lockers; they couldn’t have cared less. I eventually got over it.
These mini-writing assignments eventually led to a major 12th grade honors English writing assignment, a daunting prospective opus called “My Philosophy of Life.” My dread of writing reached new heights. What formula could I employ for success here? What is the right answer? Which will earn me the best grade? WHAT MUST I DO TO PLEASE MY TEACHER?
And then one day I began the actual assignment and I thought about the tenets that had governed my existence to that point (heavy stuff!). I began to get really introspective about things. It was only then that I wrote my first outline and first rough draft. Prior to this my writing assignments had been an exercise in completion. Though drafts were sometimes required, I was of the mindset that a “draft” meant something that was handwritten; the final draft would be typed on a word processor (Brother, of course--this was the big time) and placed in an attractive report cover. (These were the things that separated honor students from the rest of the pack, naturally.) But I digress. This was the first time that writing made me think. I had started to...enjoy it.
College came and as a commuter, I selected my classes based on times. “I need a filler between 11:00AM and 12:45PM on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Thus began my Creative Writing adventure. We sat in a circle and had to read aloud our work, critiquing our classmates’ “piece,” when it was their turn to read. “Talk to each other, not to me,” our professor commanded. The pervert to my left tinged everything he wrote with sex, and the girl to my right in a dirty flannel turned everything into a maudlin piece about Kurt Cobain. But my interest grew. I found myself jotting down ideas in the middle of the night, journaling about my day, and keeping a marble notebook reviewing books I had read and movies I had seen. (I don’t know why.) Such is the power of writing.
After college I discovered Anna Quindlen, David Sedaris, Augusten Burroughs, Laurie Notaro and some of my other favorite authors and memoirists. I participated in the Long Island Writing Project after I became an English teacher and continued on my “Writing has no rules” trajectory. I “gave up” three weeks during my summer, initially to earn 6 (!) graduate credits, but I found myself entertained, inspired, and engaged. The credits became incidental as I followed one particular assignment where we were permitted to find our own writing space and write about something personal. I sat on the floor in a corner and wept as I wrote on a topic not important here. Such is the power of writing.
As an inspired English teacher, I assigned my students writing portfolios and gave my students the freedom that had so enticed me to write towards the end of my teenage years. There were assignments and “free writes” and prompts and journal jumpstarts. There were drafts and final copies, outlines and peer editing sheets. Most of all, there was self-expression. When I graded them (creative writing is a terrible thing to assess since there is no rubric that is effective), I eschewed a numerical grade and instead wrote each student a personalized letter. On the last day of school when I distributed their portfolios, the quiet hush that took over the room amid the hustle and bustle of a looming summer vacation validated all of the reasons I became a teacher; the students’ smiles and pride confirmed that validation. Such is the power of writing.
My first crop of students who completed portfolios are 35; one student emailed me last year to tell me she found her portfolio and was so proud to look back on it and relive her high school days. Such is the power of writing. It has changed my life.
Vincent A. Caravana is an educator in the Lindenhurst UFSD. He has served in the capacity of English teacher, middle school and high school assistant principal, English chairperson and coordinator, and now Deputy Superintendent. He is a lifelong learner with a passion for reading and writing and is a proud alumnus of the Long Island Writing Project, which he maintains has been his best professional development to date.
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