This is a memoir about a writing memory written for my Approaches to Teaching Writing class, for which this blog was created. Names have been changed to protect the innocent. 🙂 This was the sixth and final draft of this memoir, which I worked on for over a month and a half.
From Writing to Teaching
The more I think about it, it was less about what she taught us and more about what she showed us we could do. She always pushed us. ~ Christie Simmons
Our school library smelled musty, of old books. Smaller than most, its six short stacks, some amalgamation of cheap particleboard sides and flimsy metal shelving, represented the limits of our district budget. But the sunshine dappling the rough orange carpet somehow made it homey. Clusters of small study tables stood at either end of the long, narrow room; one set guarded the encyclopedias like a sentry, the other clearing a pathway to the audio-visual equipment room.
Our trips there usually consisted of sneaking down the stacks before the librarian spotted us. We whispered and giggled until Mrs. Allegra sent us back to class with a firm but cheery smile. However, on this particular day we chose books for Ms. Rosti’s seventh grade language arts class. We could choose any book we wanted, but we had to write a book report about it. It was a typical assignment: write a plot summary on the book you chose. Ms. Rosti directed us from her station near the card catalog, spectacles perched upon her nose, framed by the tendrils of iron-gray hair which had escaped her bun. We were ordered to please make our decisions quickly so we would have a bit of reading time before the end of the class period. Though her stature screamed “intimidation,” her daily insistence that she would only take our best work encouraged us to improve ourselves as students, as readers, and as writers.
Ms. Rosti’s tolerance for nonsense was nonexistent, and she could put you back to task with one angry-eyed look. David’s attempts to send pencils and bits of paper flying across the room while Ms. Rosti’s back was to the class were met with instant reaction – “Mr. Hargrens, go to the office” – if any teacher in the history of the world had eyes in the back of her head, Ms. Rosti was that teacher. That knowledge pushed me harder to be a model of a perfect pupil because I wanted Ms. Rosti to like me as much as I liked her. Gaining her approval provided a large incentive to make sure I always went above and beyond the bare minimum.
Back in the library, and trying to hurry lest I get a warning to “hurry up, Miss Wedekind,” I scoured the short aisles, looking for just the right book. Each time I leaned down to look at the books on the lower shelves, where the Lois Lowry books were, I wriggled my golden-framed glasses back up to the bridge of my nose. Finding the perfect book was hard work! I loved the notion that in just the turn of a page, I could be a million miles away in my own little world; books provided the perfect distraction from my boring and tedious life on the farm. The shelf with the “K” books contained a small selection of Stephen King’s novels, including Christine, Needful Things, and The Dead Zone. I chose the last of these. You may be thinking that Stephen King probably isn’t the greatest choice for a twelve year old…and you would be right. The fact that the library served grades 6-12 meant a large variety in reading level and content.
I began reading voraciously. Then I discovered my mistake. The tough-love Ms. Rosti greeted my requests to write about another book with a coffee-colored tight-lipped refusal; I chose this book, and I must now write about this book. Looking back, I suppose she tried to teach me a lesson about my actions and the consequences of said actions. However, uncomfortable would be the mildest way to describe my feelings at being tasked with writing a paper on a book a little mature (to put it gently) for a twelve year old girl.
Painstakingly glossing over any statement that could cue the reader that I read scenes of adult romance, embarrassed that I hadn’t known the nature of Mr. King’s writing, I felt apprehensive, to say the least. I wrote as quickly as I could, hoping to be done with the project as soon as possible. Perhaps Ms. Rosti knew that I could handle it since, not to sound overly biased or egomaniacal, my innate sense of perfectionism made me one of the most mature, studious, and high-achieving students in the class. I suppose she was correct in her assumption since I did indeed survive the assignment and I did so relatively unscathed.
For this report, as with all my other papers for Ms. Rosti’s class, my revisions consisted of correcting carefully scheduled mistakes: a misplaced comma, a misspelled word, a forgotten title. Though Ms. Rosti challenged me in most things, and would have been well-suited as an English professor, she never managed to teach me that a large difference exists between editing and revision, though the difference is obvious now. As a future teacher, I know that I will emphasize the importance of revision as separate from editing, as I’m sure she meant to do.
To everyone else, Ms. Rosti was nothing more than a bossy wench who existed to make our preteen lives miserable, but to me she represented inspiration. Her unwillingness to take less than my very best and her stern but kind manner earned my respect. She encouraged me to memorize Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” still one of my favorite poems, though I’m not sure I could recite it now. Her annual chess tournament delivered the incentive to learn the game. My crisp essays returned with streaks from her infamous red pen, and motivated me to strive to do better the next time.
I recalled my fondness for Ms. Rosti years later when I realized I was supposed to be an English major, not an anthropology student. Her views on the importance of reading and writing shaped my own perceptions. Now, after a few more “subtle” nudges toward education, I have discovered that I also have a passion for teaching reading and writing, though it took completing my B.A. in English and a summer serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA to make myself aware of the fact. If not for the influence of the formidable but admirable Ms. Rosti, I’m not sure that I ever would have ended up in an education program. Although my own methods of teaching writing will surely differ from those of my junior high language arts teacher, I am grateful for the strong impact she had on me.
While asking my former classmates for memories of the venerable Ms. Rosti, one response from an old high school friend, Christie Simmons, reminded me, “It was less about what she taught us and more about what she showed us we could do. She always pushed us.” I realized she hit the nail right on the head; I don’t remember a lot of the things that happened in Ms. Rosti’s classes because we didn’t have a whole lot of “memorable” moments – she taught us as people, not as students. Sure we practiced grammar, read literature, and worked through the “writing process,” but the most important thing she taught us was the depth of our own capabilities. Her high expectations remained so high because she knew we could reach them; if she asked for any less, we wouldn’t have been motivated. The twenty-five years of teaching experience she gained before having us as students taught her how to teach the important things – recognizing our own potential and endeavoring toward that no matter what. She pushed us because she cared, despite whether or not we realized it then. She was a great teacher because she taught us not only the typical junior high language arts outlined in the Illinois State Standards, but also the skills we needed to be lifelong learners and to never give less than 110%.
I don’t remember the specifics of that old Stephen King book report, though despite disliking my book choice, I did well. If my memory serves me, it earned a bright red A-, a high grade from Ms. Rosti. The assignment experience did not sway my feelings about writing toward either hatred or infatuation. However, it is interesting how, years later, truly learning the meaning of revision is part of what nurtured my love for the craft. The greatest knowledge that Ms. Rosti instilled in me is that you must never expect less from yourself than you are capable of giving. This is a valuable lesson that has guided me toward teaching; now that I know it is what I am meant to do, it would be selfish of me to pursue any other path because I know through experience it is something at which I have to ability to do great things. Whether it is aiding a college student in revising a draft, helping an 18-year-old with a third grade reading level to prepare for the GED he so desperately wants, or assisting a seventh grader create an informative but personal report based on research of her name, I can and will teach. And I cannot expect any less of myself than becoming an excellent teacher.