I was one of the “smart” kids in my Las Lomitas elementary school classes, learned the minimal info we had to learn with ease, and when in Third Grade we started having homework, I always did mine at the last minute, often sloppily, and my teachers, until Eighth Grade, didn’t require more from me because I was still “ahead” of most of my classmates.
My main teacher in Eighth Grade at La Entrada junior high was Miss Imbach. She was in her early twenties, educated at Stanford and Harvard, and she was brilliant. Within minutes of sitting down in her classroom, I was keenly aware she was a different species than my previous teachers. She spoke to us as if we were intelligent adults and she didn’t seem to care if we immediately liked her or not.
She taught us the art of outlining, and not in a cursory way. In learning to outline, we diligently practiced distinguishing layers of specificity, which taught us critical thinking, among other things. We outlined everything, and constantly. No one-week course in outlining with Miss Imbach. We practiced outlining for the entire year. This was also true for diagramming sentences and rewriting sentences and paragraphs.
But a couple weeks into that school year, before we learned to outline and rewrite, I turned in my first essay, most of which I’d written on the twenty-minute bus ride to school. Miss Imbach glanced at my hastily scrawled pages, handed them back to me and said, “See me after class.”
As I stood before her in the empty classroom, the other kids having rushed out for recess, she said, “Explain, please.”
She gazed at me steadfastly.
“It’s what I wrote,” I said stupidly.
“I’ll give you another day to write it again. We both know you can do better than this. I want to see your rough draft and second draft and third draft.”
I was in shock. I’d never rewritten anything. I had no concept of second drafts, let alone third drafts. In fact, I had no concept of taking time to write anything. I always just quickly wrote something related to what we were supposed to write about, turned in what I’d written, and gotten an A or a B.
Thus at the age of twelve, for the first time in my life, I sat down to thoughtfully write a few pages about something, I don’t remember what, and when I’d written those pages, I read them, which was another first for me. I was horrified. And the fact was, I didn’t know how to rewrite. I had no experience of rewriting, nor had any teacher ever taught me how to even begin to do that.
I didn’t dare ask my father for help. He would, I knew, use this as an opportunity to prove how smart he was and how stupid I was, and it never occurred to me to ask my mother. So I resorted to my older sister Kathy, a fastidious straight-A scholar, by then a sophomore in high school.
She read my rough draft and said, “Gag me with a spoon,” a popular expression of distaste in those days. She showed me a few tricks, which I applied to my essay in making a second draft. I read this second draft and thought it better than the first draft, but still dreadful. My sister agreed, showed me how to eliminate a few obvious redundancies and how to say a few things more clearly, and I created a third draft.
This all took me hours! I’d never spent even one hour on homework. Ever.
When I turned in my three drafts to Miss Imbach the next day, she nodded and resumed her conversation with another student. What? No ticker tape parade? No trophy? No effusive thank you and congratulations and an A+? Nothing. And two days later when we got our essays back, my grade was a C-.
To make a long story short, I became devoted to Miss Imbach, so much so I attended her wedding mid-year when she became Mrs. McConnell. I loved her as I have never loved another teacher. She taught me to write, to think, to argue cogently, and to tear sentences and paragraphs apart and put them back together so they became clear and pleasing; and we had many fabulous laughing sessions as a class, our senses of humor lifted by her teaching out of the potty into realms of relative sophistication.
Indeed, high school for me, after having Mrs. McConnell for my teacher, was a colossal bore and a waste of four golden years. I learned nothing new in four years of Advanced English, and backslid because I could turn in crap again and get A’s and B’s.
Yet perhaps the most miraculous thing Mrs. McConnell did for me in that life-changing year was to pair me with Cyd Jasmin as editors of each other’s writing. That is, Mrs. McConnell created dyads in our English class, and when we wrote essays and stories we would exchange drafts with our partners who would then make editing suggestions prior to our writing our final drafts.
When the dyads were announced in class a couple months into the school year, I froze in disbelief when Miss Imbach said, “Cyd and Todd.” Why disbelief? Because ever since Third Grade, Cyd had been the king bully of our school along with a couple other brutes. I’d never before been in a class with Cyd, and he had never spoken to me except to threaten me with bodily harm. And on a few occasions he had inflicted that harm. Hence, I was terrified of him. Besides, I was one of the “smart” kids and he couldn’t be smart, right?
Wrong. The first time we traded papers, our autobiographies, Cyd gave me a typed twelve-page opus that was so good, so sophisticated and nuanced, I felt like an idiot for giving him my childish five-page summation of my comparatively silly life.
I could find no flaw in Cyd’s writing, and his autobiography revealed so much about him and his life, I understood why he’d become the school bully and chose to consort with the local toughs.
When I gave him back his autobiography the next day and effused about how good I thought it was, he beamed at me and responded in a most un-Cyd-like way, saying he’d really enjoyed my autobiography, too, and had only made a few suggestions which he’d written on the last page.
And for the rest of Eighth Grade and through high school, Cyd and I liked each other. We didn’t become good friends, but we were always glad to see each other, having for several months vetted each other’s essays before we rewrote them for our beloved Miss Imbach-McConnell.