At 9 a.m. sharp, Mr. Thorne would burst into room 306 and make his way to the chalkboard in quick strides. He always carried a heap of handouts and, depending on whether or not he owed us graded papers, a big manila folder. As he placed the pile carefully on his oak desk, I’d notice his body relax slightly.
It was almost like watching a robot transform into a human. The tense, blank facial expression that I usually saw in the hallways became somewhat calmer in the classroom. The rigid posture slowly melted away. And his eyes, usually void of emotion, suddenly looked like they were full of life. After taking a quick look around the classroom, he’d sift through the pile until he found his sheet of notes. Then, he would turn to write our first assignment on the board.
Often times, he would quietly hum, too. He’d gaze back at his sheet after writing each sentence and slightly bob his head as if he were listening to a great song rather than reading through his notes. And when he finished, he would put the chalk down, walk around to the front of his desk and sit there in silence with his arms folded, watching us calmly.
We would chatter on like a choir of angry birds, but within a minute, the noise would dwindle to silence and Mr. Thorne would have our complete attention. You could hear a pen click or a chair squeak. His silence was always loud enough to shut us up fairly quickly.
But one morning in February, I sat among the angry birds in silence. As Mr. Thorne waited for the class to quiet down, my eyes darted to the big manila folder that, I was pretty sure, contained our graded papers on what it means to be human.
Mr. Thorne finally cleared his throat and announced that he finished grading everyone’s papers. My heart skipped a few beats and my body tensed. He had the class take a vote on when he should return our papers, and not surprisingly, all of us voted to have our papers given back right away.
This was it.
I was the third student to receive my essay. I held my breath as he came to me with my paper in his outstretched hand, looping the sheets in half in order to cover my grade from any onlookers. I took a deep breath and peeked at the grade he’d written at the top.
For a minute I went numb. Then I read what he wrote underneath that grade: Please see me after class.
I could not think straight. My class had to discuss the first few chapters of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged that day, but I didn’t pay the slightest attention. All I could think about was that grade.
I couldn’t fathom how he could possibly think that this paper I spent so much time on was bad. Had I completely missed the point of that assignment? Did I make too many mistakes? Did I write too little? Or too much?
After fifty minutes of spacing out and worrying about this paper, I practically ran straight to my teacher when the class ended. I wanted to understand why he didn’t like my essay. This one grade was already beginning to make me doubt my talent as a writer. In fact, I was heart-broken. I was worried that maybe I wasn’t as good a writer as I always thought. Was I only fooling myself?
We sat down to talk after the class left, and I was relieved to see that his human side was still there. The chalkboard was crammed with notes from that day’s class, and on his desk sat a battered copy of Atlas Shrugged, his sheet of notes and a messy pile of extra handouts. He gestured for me to hand him my paper and I relaxed a little, but I was still worried. He made space on his desk and then browsed through my essay as if to re-familiarize himself with it.
These were his first words: “I could that tell you worked really hard on this. It’s definitely well-written, no punctuation or spelling errors, and that’s great. But, my concern is, when you’re describing humans, you’re not digging deep enough.” I nodded and allowed him to continue, expecting this to be a one-way conversation. But to my surprise, he said: “Forget about this paper for a minute and tell me, in your own words, what you think it means to be a human being. Don’t think in terms of physical attributes, think of human behavior or attitudes. How are they psychologically, or emotionally?” He folded his arms and stared at me, waiting.
“Well,” I mumbled, “Humans are not perfect… They make mistakes. And they feel many emotions…” I paused. “They’re complex… They’re rational people.”
“Okay, great start,” he said. “But let me ask you something. If I didn’t have arms, or hands, or legs, would that mean I’m no longer human?” I answered right away, “Of course not.”
But then he gave me a slight smirk and pointed to my paper. “But your essay seems to argue otherwise. Do you see what I’m getting at?”
“Aahhhh… Right.” And in that moment I looked at my paper with new eyes. I was beginning to understand what I needed to do to improve this piece. He went through my paper in more detail and discussed which parts I should consider keeping or eliminating, and by the end of our meeting, my essay was practically splattered with green ink. He had crossed out about half of the writing on my first page, and small notes were scribbled along the margins with no white space left to spare. He must have seen the look on my face as I noticed this, because before I left, he said, “Don’t be discouraged by the grade, I know you’re a good writer. Just take your time with this re-write and think about what I said. The comments are there to help you.”
For the next two days I worked really hard on that re-write, and I ended up with an A-. Below that grade read the comment: This is a big improvement from your first paper. Very well-written. Keep up the good work. I couldn’t help but smile with pride.
It was actually at that point when I made one of the biggest decisions of my life. I decided that I wanted to become a writer. I was now confident that I could hone my skills and grow as a writer like I did in that class. And I was no longer afraid to look into a book that had enough difficult phrases to sound like a completely different language. But even more importantly, I couldn’t have made this decision without that teacher’s encouragement. Although he made it clear that a failing grade or negative feedback should not discourage me, I found that this one failure motivated me to make that choice.