susanwrites and I have never met in person, but we’ve crossed paths online many times. She wrote in her blog today about what she was like in middle school and she sounded just like me at that age. If we’d gone to the same school at the same time, we probably would’ve been best friends!
She also wrote about the special teachers who encouraged her to write. I decided I had too much to say on that subject to simply comment on her blog…I’d rather post my own tribute to the wonderful teachers in my past.
First, there was Mr. Hartshorn, my sixth and seventh grade English teacher. It’s funny…he remembers me as being one of his “top students.” (That’s what he told me when I looked him up so I could send him a copy of my first published book.) I WASN’T one of his top students. In fact, I didn’t like his class much. I didn’t like the books we had to read. And I ESPECIALLY didn’t like the speech unit. I was terrified to get up in front of my classmates and give a speech. I had a solid B in his class. So one day I went up to him with my knees knocking and my heart pounding and I managed to squeak out, “W-will you give me extra credit if I write a novel for you?” I had no idea what he was going to say to such an idea. I remember he looked a little taken back. But he agreed to give me extra credit if I wrote a novel for him. So I did! It was 42 pages long and it was a story about a girl whose mother dies. I remember watching him reading it during class, wondering what he thought. He was kind of a scary teacher. I started to wonder what in the world I’d been thinking, writing a novel for Mr. Hartshorn…I knew he wasn’t going to like it. I knew I didn’t have any talent and I was never going to be a writer when I grew up.
But then he gave it back to me. And he actually SMILED when he gave it back (Mr. Hartshorn hardly ever smiled!). I still have the note he wrote. It says, “Your novel is interesting and basically very well written.” That meant way more to me than the extra credit. If MR. HARTSHORN thought my novel was “interesting and basically very well written,” then maybe it really was? And maybe I really could be an author when I grew up! (BTW, Mr. Hartshorn was one of the stricter teachers I ever had, but he was also one of the BEST teachers I ever had…I learned a lot from him…and I NEVER would be able to do a school visit today if not for those dreaded speech units.)
The next teacher who came along was Mr. Helmstetter. He was my homeroom teacher all through high school and my 9th grade English teacher. He used to read my short stories on his own time and offer encouraging feedback. He wrote in my yearbook, “you’ll soon be my favorite novelist.” I actually got to see him again last year, when he invited me to one of his schools to do an author visit.
Then there was Mr. Chicos. He was my creative writing teacher in 11th grade…and he was a fine creative writing teacher. But beyond that, he agreed to work with me one-on-one for an independent study in creative writing when I was a senior in high school. Which meant that for one of my class periods, I got to hang out in the English teachers’ lounge and write stories rather than go to study hall. It was the best “class” I ever took in high school. (I saw him, too, a few years back when I did a book signing in my hometown…I was so touched that he came to my book signing and stood in line…personally, I thought he deserved a VIP pass to the front of the line for all he did for me in high school!)
And then in college, I had two professors at Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota who each had a pretty big impact on my life. First was Dr. Elliott, who was head of the English department. I took creative writing from him my freshman year. It was in his class that I decided I wanted to write for children. And then the following year, he spent A LOT of time working with me. I set up an independent study course to get course credit for writing a novel, and he was my advisor. He also introduced me to Will Weaver (yes, THE Will Weaver who writes award-winning YA novels now). That was Will’s first yeat at Bemidji State. I never had a class with him, but he spent a fair amount of time reading/commenting on my work. (And as a college sophomore, I had the opportunity to see pieces of a book that would become his first novel for young readers, STIKING OUT.)
I tried to find Dr. Elliott again when my first book was published, but he was no longer at Bemidji State. I did get in touch with Will Weaver again this past summer, though. And I asked him about Dr. Elliott…I learned that Dr. Elliott had taken his own life years ago! I had a really hard time dealing with this. How could a man who had had such a profound influence on my life, a man who had selflessly given ME so much have possibly taken his own life??? Dr. Elliott had writing aspirations, too. And he never published his novel. How is it I’VE published five novels of my own, while he never published one? It just makes me sad…
I never knew any authors when I was a kid (though Lynn Hall came to my library when I was a kid and did a reading…she was the only author I ever “met”). But I’ve been very fortunate to have a number of wonderful teachers who went WAY above and beyond the call of duty to work with me and encourage me. I don’t think I’d be where I am today without them.