I read my first chapter book when I was seven years old. It was Matilda, by Roald Dahl, which I finished in the span of two days. Shortly thereafter, I signed out every Dahl book available at the library and voraciously read each: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; Danny, the Champion of the World; The Witches. I was spellbound by Dahl’s enchanting narratives, and enamored with his central characters who embodied an intrepid spirit and sense of adventure.
Though I fell deeply in love with each story, Matilda, was the first book that gave me a desire to write about worlds and events as intriguing and imaginative as those masterfully crafted by Dahl. I began to write daily, and by the end of second grade, I had amassed a portfolio of work—which although considerable in volume—was essentially watered-down imitations of my most revered author.
I remember one story in particular, written when I was eight years old. It was about a little boy named Jerry, who wore virtually every colour of clothing, apart from yellow. The kid had a serious aversion to yellow. A seemingly inexplicable one, as I don’t recall providing an explanation for Jerry’s utter disdain for all things the colour of sunshine and canaries.
In retrospect, it wasn’t my strongest piece, but at the time I remember feeling incredibly proud and delighted with what I deemed a work of genius. As far as my elementary-aged self was concerned, I was a writer—in the truest sense. Publisher be damned, I was handwriting pages by the dozen, and binding them with Scotch tape and twist-ties stolen from the Dempster bread bags in our kitchen. You see, I understood something then that I lost sight of in the years following: that to do something for the pure, uncomplicated love of it is reason enough. Somewhere along the way, I lost that love—the kind unencumbered by expectation and fueled solely by unadulterated passion.
Although there are several contributing factors which gradually deflated my passion for writing, I think one of the more notable ones was Grade 6 Grammar class. Listen, I get it. Writing mechanics are a big deal. Proper grammar, correct punctuation, appropriate conjugations, and well-structured sentences ARE important. They serve valid functions—to an extent. But focusing solely on the mechanics made me second-guess each word I wrote, and it made writing a more arduous and less joyful endeavor.
Growing up, I was a rule-abiding child who heeded all authorities. Writing was the one pursuit where I displayed any rebelliousness as all other areas of my childhood were heavily influenced by my timid and introverted nature. When teachers began emphasizing writing mechanics, it seemed as though they were prioritizing proper comma placement over creativity. The mechanics of writing weren’t presented as guiding principles—they were heralded as the Holy Grail of writing. Instead of considering them as useful tools, I regarded them as imposing forces that curbed my creativity. And so, with a sour taste tainting my writer’s palette, I stepped away from writing. All throughout junior high and the first few years of high school, I loathed written assignments. That is, until twelfth grade when I enrolled in an English class taught by a man who (for the purposes of anonymity), I will refer to as Mr. P.
Mr. P. was an eccentric. An intellectual. A philosophizing soul who was respected by staff and idolized by students. Broad-shouldered and tall, he had a lengthy beard matched by a pair of thick sideburns. When I first met him, I expected a deep, authoritative voice to emerge, but instead a far more tempered one spoke, with a candid hippie-like inflection reminiscent of The Dude in The Big Lebowski. Though he evades description, if I were to venture one, physically, Mr. P. kind of resembled Santa Claus. Or rather, St. Nick’s maverick brother, who rebelled by rejecting the family business, and absconding to the Canadian West Coast, proclaiming, “To hell with snow and pine trees, man. I’m moving south and teaching the generation of tomorrow!”
Mr. P. possessed an indefatigable passion for literature. Many of the most impactful novels I read in high school were from Mr. P.’s class. Not because they were listed on the course syllabus, but because they lined a communal bookshelf accessible to students, which I borrowed from regularly. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand—these were books by authors who defied convention and embodied literary creativity and rebelliousness.
Learning, in Mr. P’s realm, extended well beyond submission deadlines and conventional grading rubrics. In his class, I revisited my lost love of writing and wrote freely on all kinds of subjects. Although rough guidelines accompanied each assignment, I think they were mere formalities to appease a system governed by the all-powerful syllabus. I think Mr. P. could have requested an essay on the social impact of violence in the media, and received a satirical analysis on The Boondock Saints, and still have graded it with an emphatic A+. His teaching style wasn’t solely about the technicalities of grammar and mechanics. These were secondary in the face of learning’s true purpose. In Mr. P.’s realm, the overarching purpose was always to connect. To find that thing, perhaps previously untapped, that each student was passionate about and getting him or her to express it in their own unique way. Mr. P.’s class was a forum for this; a forum for exploring (and in my case, revisiting) our true passions.
I think that’s why everyone loved and respected him so much. I think that’s why, fourteen years later, he remains the most impactful academic mentor of my life. In so many ways, Mr. P. is the reason I returned to my love of writing. He reinforced the values of creativity and pursuing a passion for the pure, uncomplicated love of it—rules be damned.
Final assignment for University of Calgary Continuing Education WRI 110-027 Writing Well submitted on November 27, 2017.