The Suffering Of A Young Autodidact

Thanks to Mathilde Langevin for
producing and sharing my cover photo via Unsplash

“Alright everyone.  That’s it for today.  You have your syllabus and your first writing assignment; which is due this Friday at the beginning of class. I’m looking forward to reading some wonderful essays this weekend.  I’ll see you again on Wednesday”.

Perfect!  I should have enough time to hit my locker and still have plenty of time to. . .  “Mr. Wilson; I need you to stay after class for a few minutes.  Have a great day everyone.”

Say what! Who gets called to stay after class on the first day?

– – = = ( o ) = = – –

One semester at Petaluma High School in 1972, I was looking forward to a class  I was confident I would do well in.

It was a  whole class about writing  essays taught by Barbara Stovall.  Some us were just fulfilling an elective, but  I expected this class to be a highlight of each week.

I was not a strong student until after High School.  I was just  preoccupied with my own thoughts and boredom came too easily, But with this class, I’d be doing what I love — writing.

Also in this class, there was a certain girl I can’t name because I don’t have her permission.  So, Jeanette, was there and relevant to my story.

For those of you who don’t know me from the early 1970s, I was one of the mid-tier guys in terms of popularity, say a 5/10,  good enough to have some friends I still care about but, when Jeanette, sat down two rows from me, I only noted her presence. On my scale of popularity she was easily an 8/10 and better information might prove me mistaken in not scoring her a 9/10.  She was  very attractive, but way out of my league. So my thoughts quickly went back to reviewing the syllabus.

As I read, I got more excited about the class. It could have been  designed specifically for me.  A very hands-on tour of how to write short essays and stories.

The class began and Ms. Stovall walked us through her syllabus,  explaining how we would have a new assignment each Monday which would be due on Friday.  Excellent!  She then drew our attention to a final item near the bottom. “I also allow an option to doing my assignments. If  you have a project you would prefer, write out a description   and let me review it.  If I like it, I’ll  trade out one assignment for your idea”

Oh wow! I thought because;  I have one.  A  few weeks earlier I had penned a short story outline and drafts of the first two chapters.  I had it all in a folder that lived in my backpack.

“Any questions before we begin?”

Without thinking, I raised my hand. “How do you want us to get our project idea to you for that last option?”

“Just bring it to me as early in each week as possible so I have time to review  it.”

I reached into my backpack to pull out my folder and walked it up to her desk despite knowing that every normal kid in room just labeled me the biggest suck up nerd ever.  If I’d thought it through, I might have chickened out.

She set my folder aside so she could continue class.  We got our first assignment and a short lecture to help us begin and about ten minutes to start it so we could realize any early questions and get them answered.

I quickly knocked out something that met the requirements and left me with a few minutes before the clock ran out, so I grabbed a book from my backpack.

At this point in my life I was thinking a lot about growing up and who I wanted to be and how I would relate to others.  I knew there were a lot of other humans out in the wild, living lives I could tell I would not enjoy.  I wanted to make smart decisions and avoid doing stupid things.

social animalThe book I was reading was a new sociology textbook titled, “The Social Animal” by Elliot Aronson.  I was in way over my head but this is how I taught myself stuff.  Get a good book that mostly confused me and take my time figuring it out. Full disclosure:  I never did fully finish or understand it all, but I learned plenty.

Ms. Stovall’s voice brought me back to class. “Okay, that’s all time we have for today.  Any questions?”

After dealing with a few, she continued, “You are dismissed, but if you disturb anyone  by being noisy in the hall, this will be the last time I dismiss you early.  Mr. Wilson; I need you to stay after class for a few minutes.  Have a great day everyone.”

I was worried.  I didn’t think I’d done anything disruptive.  I just wasn’t that guy.  I was that guy who preferred to be as invisible as physics allowed a 6’3″ guy to be.  This has to be about my project, I thought.  I’m about to be stomped.  What was I thinking?  No way, she’ll let me use it.  I should have at least pulled the sex scene or maybe it was the rape scene.

I let everyone else leave before making my way to her desk to give me time to stress and bolster up for my first writing rejection.

“Mr. Wilson;  I reviewed your idea while you were writing and this is a very interesting project but is much bigger than what I had in mind, so I have an alternative.  If you finish this story before the end of the semester, I’ll cancel all other assignments so you can focus and turn in your progress each week instead.”

Did I hear her correctly?  My project instead of all her assignments. . . ?  How cool is this?  “Wow, Thank you. I agree.”

“Further, If you finish this story. I’ll give you an ‘A’ for the class.”

I left thrilled and dazed, feeling like I just agreed to do something so huge that I began to worry about failing which birthed waves of doubt.

I would not have articulated it well at the time, but projects like this  describe the way I found that I learn best.  Jump in deep and then think my way to a place of understanding.  But, in this case, I wanted the experience to be  vicarious through a written thought-experiment.   I never actually told Ms. Stovall what I was trying to learn because teen age boys just don’t talk about sex with their middle aged female teachers, so I was just going to plow through and see how she choose to help me.

She proved to be amazing editor and did not miss a beat when it came to the actual sex scene where my protagonist allowed a well-liked young woman to lead a date to include some alcohol-assisted sex, which he would not have admitted would ever be part of their friendship.  The morning after he had a very bad reaction to what he’d done.

Did I succeed in writing this scene without being pornographic?

After work one night, as he wrestled with what he thought was his failing to live up to his own standards, he happens upon an in-progress rape and with very little planning steps in to stop three men from assaulting one woman. He gets beat up pretty good, but succeeds enough to break up the assault.

It was awkward to write, creepy to envision but helped clarify my thinking about such things.  And Ms. Stovall, was stunned and passionate about how these scenes unfolded, correcting my grammar, Okay, I’ll fix that too, but also diving in to tell me where I mangled how the women would respond in both scenes and what I absolutely had to correct.  She went on to try and correct how my main character analyzed both situations and we disagreed on one point that I refused to change because him drawing a wrong conclusion was part of the point, but wow, she was resolute that my character was wrong.  This in my mind was great editing and I’ve often thought how I could have pulled so much more value from her help if only I was stronger at thinking out loud with someone as bright and caring as her.

In the mean time, she had a thing about selecting the best 2-4 essays from the prior week and reading them aloud to the class.  To have yours included, became a “feared reward” for producing good essays.  This was such a draw that I decided to participate despite my free-pass from all her assignments. Some of mine earned a public reading.

One assignment was simply to write about someone you admired.  The following Monday, I listened as she read through her favorites. During the writing time that was coming,  I planned on finishing a chapter of my “Social Animal” book.  I listened half distracted until I heard our teacher introduce an essay by Jeanette.  That caught my attention because I didn’t recall one of hers being read before.  It would be a chance to learn something of how this woman from the higher rungs of society thought and how she packaged her thoughts.

The topic, I thought did not lend itself to much creativity but I thought Jeanette’s work was sounding pretty good.  It was about some guy and why she admired him.  She took a perspective of far-off rather than close to her subject, as if she watched him from across the lunch room.  It was interesting and I caught myself comparing myself to her subject and doing pretty well against her standards of his actions.

Who is this guy? I think I could like him.

Then Jeanette, through our teacher’s voice said, “He reads unusual books  that are not normal for other students.  He’s currently reading one titled, The Social Animal’ and I wonder what it is about.”

I could feel my blood chill and looked down to see that book staring back at me, betraying who Jeanette was talking about.

I had no mental framework to deal with this.  How does a number five deal with such a public statement from a number nine?  Then I felt bad for her because; Oh no!  she most likely did not intend taht to go public. What do I do?  I decided to at least sneak that book back into my backpack and avoid looking at her.

But what, if anything, should I say and to whom should I say it?  I wished there was a way for the teacher to withdraw that reading.  Jeanette and I were the same people we were only seconds ago, but now, What does it mean that she would write this?  I thought she didn’t know that I exist. Maybe this doesn’t change anything. . . Yea, that’s it.

Maybe I should tell her that this book, confuses me every time I read it and it certainly does not tell me how to receive such a compliment from someone like her.  Am I embarrassed or just confused about being confused?

In the end, we never spoke about it but I never forgot her compliment.  I did finish my story and got that ‘A’ and didn’t mind at all that it was far from easy.  I do wish I could go back just long enough to thank this teacher for an amazing experience.

This was in 1972 and 47 years later I opened the old file cabinet and pulled out that story to realize, ugh, how badly written it really was.

Conclusion:  we should all say a prayer of thanks for teachers like Ms. Stovall and I hope that my experimental story is not found until after well after my death — if ever


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Gary photo n bio

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