My best writing lesson

…came from an American History teacher.

When I heard that Mr. Bronson’s AP American History class was comprised entirely of reading, discussions, multiple choice tests and essays, I was sold. These are all things that I excel at.  Reading? Talking? Writing?  I DOES THIS SON!  And with multiple choice tests, the answer is right there.  Additionally, I was simultaneously taking a creative writing class, which would further aid me in padding my essays with flowery language.  How could I lose?


Because I discovered that the book we were reading was one of the most boring books known to man.  I can’t remember the name of it, but for me to call a book flat out boring, is saying something.  I read cereal box ingredients to pass the time.  My strategy was to take notes, read those, bluff my way through essays and get what I could from the multiple choice.  (Yes. I was precisely this dumb at 16.)  So, I took my first multiple choice test.  Have you ever had the answer to something staring you in your face, and you STILL couldn’t hit it with a bat?  Fifty multiple choice items, with four answers that looked like the same answer. Meh.  I’ll knock it out with the essay.

I used flowery words and my best prose.  The essay referred to Native Americans and my thoughts on manifest destiny.  It was a masterpiece of bullshit.  But bluff writing is what I do.  I accepted my graded essay the following day with a smirk.  I knew it would average out that whopping D I received on the multiple choice portion. “D- – Be more diligent.  This class moves fast.  Keep up with your reading.”  Was the “-” really necessary dawg?  A “D” would have been totally sufficient.

So, I tried…a bit.  I’ll be honest, gaining information comes to me rather easily typically.  When it doesn’t, I’m not always good at dealing.  Another test rolled around, and I tanked yet again.  Another D, minus the minus this time.  Another warning:  “You can articulate very well in class, and you’ve got the ability.  What happened in this essay?”  As time marched on, for some reason, it became a test of will.  He was determined to bring out the best in me, I was determined to ace by coasting. I managed to eke out an A- (with a note which said “Great work. Let’s make this habitual.”) on one test, and it fueled my lazy resolve.

By the end of the first semester, we were equally tired of one another.  For the first semester final, along with my straight up “F,”  I got a more pointed note.  This was 18 years ago, but along with tiny question marks in the margins, it ended with this general sentiment:

You’re too smart to provide me with this four pages of BS. Did you do the reading?  I know you can write. Show me that you can write informatively.

Yeah. He went there.  And he was right.  I really wasn’t putting forth the effort.  I’d decided that my writing was a tool for coasting, not a skill to develop.  Yet, I still couldn’t get into that class, but refused to drop it.  At the end, when I was ineligible to take the AP test, which would have provided me with college credit, he assigned a book to me: Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character.  I rocked the shit out of it.  I agreed, disagreed and challenged effectively.  I researched and poured everything into that essay. He was so over me and my big bag of bullshit, I knew he was going to pan it and give me a C.  Irrespective of my complete lack of effort, I’d convinced myself that he flat out didn’t like me.  So I thumbed through the essay looking for the familiar “??s” and “Don’t BS me here. Substance.”  I saw none of that.  A few sentences were underlined for emphasis, and I saw the unfamiliar, “GREAT OBSERVATION!”  I remember what I saw on the last page, I remember as though it’s right in front of me:

A++ AMEN!  This is what I knew you were capable of all year, and would have loved to see you try.  Write like this, informatively and with substance.  It’ll take you far.

I still get misty when I think about that.  I’ve always loved words, and had a knack for writing them down, to the point that I’d come to take my talent for granted.  But I always look back at that time in my life as the period when I actually became a writer.  I’ve been in love ever since.