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Did teachers steal my time — or was I the real culprit?

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Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2012 12:00 am

Poet Richard Brautigan once wrote, "My teachers could have easily ridden with Jesse James for all the time they stole from me."

Perhaps the popular 1960s author was being a bit unfair. Some things can be taught in a formal setting, while others must be learned through life experiences. Take the art of writing, for example.

Growing up, we all heard about "introduction, body and conclusion." We had our weekly spelling tests, using words that weren't well understood and soon forgotten. Then there was the drill of grammar — something that might not be emphasized as much in today's classrooms.

I remember my first big composition in the eighth grade. Our young and energetic teacher announced that this would be our opportunity to show how much we had learned about writing over the last eight years.

I was excited and went home to begin my masterpiece. It was influenced by the 1954 feature-length "Dragnet" movie where the opening scene showed a "bad guy" being murdered with a sawed-off shotgun. It was quite a violent picture for its day, although quite tame by today's standards.

"This is great screenwriting," I thought, and began my story with a similar setting.

I couldn't wait to see my grade. Certainly, it would be one of the better classroom compositions. After a few days, the papers were returned.

"What? D minus! How could this be? My teacher must be an idiot!" I concluded.

Of course, my mother would appreciate my genius. After all, she had a degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Later that day, I placed the disgraced manuscript upon her desk and waited with anticipation for her verdict.

"This is terrible!" she exclaimed. "There is no real plot. There is no character development. Nothing connects in this story. No one cares about the few characters you've created here. What are you trying to do — write for television?"

Clueless about her comments, I simply buried the whole episode.

When I entered the 12th grade, I figured my last three years of education must have certainly accumulated into something significant. I invented weird names for characters like "Xebec Xavier." My compositions were lengthy, and demonstrated loads of time and effort.

But my English teacher, Miss Butts (yes, that was her real name), saw no skill or brilliance in my endeavors. A "C" was the most common grade earned that year.

So, what did I learn about writing during my formative years in school? Unfortunately, I have to admit it was not much. But what can one expect from a high school English classroom of 35 students, meeting for less than an hour per day?

Looking back over the years, I would conclude that there are four points that make a difference in one's ability to write:

1. Years of life experiences in a variety of areas.

2. Insight and reflection about those experiences.

3. Continuing interest in reading the works of others who have been published successes.

4. A good grasp of grammar and proper sentence structure.

Other than the last category, the first three are not issues that can be taught by Miss Butts — or for that matter, anyone else from 2:10 to 2:55 p.m., excluding weekends, holidays and summers.

So, did my teachers "steal" my time? Perhaps. But maybe I was the real thief for not seeing the value of those earlier school days or using my "free" time productively. The latter certainly could have been better utilized.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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