As the clock turned to ten minutes until class would begin all the students stood in the hallway in front of the door, none of them willing to be the first to open the door in this new environment. A few minutes pass and then an older man steps up to the door. He has his gray hair tied back into a ponytail with a couple hair ties and has a full face of hair. Looking at his button up Hawaiian shirt tucked into his pants and his feet covered in socks and sandals as he unlocks the door to the classroom is a peculiar feeling. Along with everything else that was new at this university, a professor like this was unexpected. In the class sessions that would follow I could see that even more than his appearance his teaching methods were different from what I was used to in an English class. I was a little afraid to see how different the class would really be from my past experiences.
English and writing as subjects were hard for me to wrestle with. With other subjects I always had a good feeling of where I stood. In the other subjects you either got the answer right or you got it wrong. It was always black or white. Most of the time in English however, especially when it came to writing, so many aspects seemed like shades of gray. Asking for a specific answer and at the same time asking for each student’s individual take on a subject just never made sense to me. I always had the feeling of stumbling through the coursework and where other students just seemed to shine, I felt like I didn’t. Teachers would always start off showing examples of “good papers” but when I tried to write like that it would always turn out flat and shallow in thought. When I would write in high school the outcome was always pretty consistent. I would be able to understand the topic enough to do the assignment but I often couldn’t see a bigger picture and therefore felt like my papers weren’t deep or interesting compared to everyone else. Even though I would try really hard I never heard “You’re such a good writer”, like other students would get told. I don’t know why it was important for me to hear those things but eventually I figured out and just accepted that I wasn’t a good writer. Even though that had been the case in previous classes, these views would be changed in one semester by a professor who probably doesn’t even know about the doors he opened for me.
I hadn’t had any high expectations for the class that first day of class. I already had a plan in my head as to how the class would go. I expected to do fine but nothing surprising. It was hard adjusting to living in a completely new place and I figured that would factor into my performance. The first paper we were assigned however was nothing like anything I had ever encountered before. It was essentially an essay based off of whatever we wanted. There was no corresponding book or argument. We had to write an observation of an event, we couldn’t participate, and it had to be an “appropriate” event, other than being written within those parameters it could be whatever we wanted. I didn’t understand then but it was really the first paper that I put “myself” in. With many reservations, I wrote my observation of my “event” and though I really didn’t feel good about it, I turned it in. It was really one of the first times I had put so much of what I was feeling in a paper I knew someone else would read. During the time I was writing the paper, I had felt overwhelmed, out of place, and genuinely alone and all that came out in the paper. I could not foresee the reaction the paper would get.
Already anticipating the pitying or possibly even judgmental looks the professor would give me, I was dreading the class in which I would be getting the paper back. The score on the paper however was nothing like I was expecting. Words of praise were written all over the paper and score was nearly perfect. Words I had never seen in response to my writing before were directed at me. Later during his office hours when I asked what he really thought he said, “This was kind of amazing. And I’m saying this honestly, kind of moving. The way you describe the colors and surroundings and bring in your thoughts was just …”, he finished with more but it was such a shock to me I didn’t that I didn’t know what to say. Even though it’s dramatic to say I had gone through most of my school career feeling as though my writing was so mediocre it wasn’t even worth talking about. And then there I was with a college professor telling me that my paper was kind of “amazing” and that it was moving. Despite getting all that praise but it hadn’t made me more confident, if anything it made feel worse about my writing. I felt had accidentally written this amazing paper but after reading the next one he would see the real extent of my skill and I would drift behind the superstars.
Incidentally, I would soon see that my predetermined skill “limit” would continue to be broken again and again. With the return of my next paper, which had been an interview I had procrastinated with and therefore was especially not confident, I began to see that maybe I wasn’t understanding what I could really do. My score on the second paper was even higher than the first. At that point I just did not understand what would be good about my paper. Yet again in the conference about the paper I was met with words of praise about my paper. After I expressed my many insecurities about my writing he told me, “You write very well, what it sounds like to me is that you compare your writing to other people. Drawing ideas is one thing but there would be no reason for you to write with anyone else’s “voice” but your own. From what I’ve seen you can trust yourself”. Hearing those words really came as shock to me, but then it occurred to me that I had spent most of my educational career worrying about not writing like other people when I could have been focusing on the way I wrote and maybe that was what had been holding me back and causing my insecurities. In high school I had always been in “honors” classes with people who everyone knew were really smart and I drew comparisons in the way they wrote their papers and figured I just wasn’t as good. In addition to drawing comparisons I also had never gone in to ask if what I was doing was good, I had just expected them to tell me. I have no idea how I had expected to improve with no guidance but I mistakenly had. In college though, especially in the first year when there is no one who is thought to be better than everyone else, it’s assumed that everyone is at the same level. The first paper was just nontraditional enough for me to fall out of my normal style and try something that felt more personal. All of this in conjunction with the lack of me wanting to make comparisons combined with the fact that I actually talked with the professor about my paper and what I could do better had set me up to write with more confidence and use the skill I did possess.
The professor showed me that I wasn’t mediocre and because of that I was able to learn a lot more about the way that I write and how to really control and convey my thoughts which I would never have been able to do with my previous doubt. It sounds cheesy but when people say your only competition should be with yourself its good advice to keep in mind. I told myself that because I didn’t write like other people that it meant that they were better and I continued to believe that rather than look to myself and see where I personally could improve. Whether or not other people write better than me is less of a concern to me now even though I still end up doubting things in relation to writing. Instead I focus now I focus on how to improve my own writing based on what my professors tell me, which puts me back on the right track.