I was a poor student in high school. I had never learned to study, and in retrospect, I was completely unaware of the very concept. I only did well at subjects which came easily to me, but I loved to read, and so I sometimes liked English class, which was usually concerned with literature.
I know I wasn't very big on homework, and I guess I clowned around a lot, but in my second year course I got a term paper assignment which somehow captured my interest and imagination. My subject was F. Scott Fitzgerald, the American novelist of the 20s, whose life seemed so reflected in his work. I became fascinated by him, and devoured eveything he he had written, as well as whatever I could find out about him. It was the first time I had gotten excited about writing a paper.
I suppose I identified with the romance of his life, or maybe it was an infatuation with tragedy, but my writing seemed somehow inspired. I hunted and pecked at my father's old Royal with a fervor I'd never before mustered, rewriting and crumpling and surrounding myself with heaps of paper as I imagined F. Scott himself must have.
When the day came, I anxiously handed in my masterpiece, almost savoring the waiting, imagining the possibility of triumph, the gratification of recognition for something I had really done, something requiring skill and effort, and perserverance.
A week or so later came the moment for the papers to be returned, and I remember being surprised by the cool stern look of my teacher as he handed me mine. Within seconds my surprise turned to shock, then to hate, and finally to the icy numbness that marked my withdrawal from his world. My grade was an F. It was in red. In large underlined letters he had written: "This isn't your own work."
What was in his mind? Perhaps I hadn't done my homework before that, or maybe I had clowned around too much in class. Whatever the reason, he had clearly decided that I was incapable of producing anything worthy, that I had managed to copy it somewhere, or have it written for me. That I was no good.
I never returned to his class. The thought of what he did brings me near fury. But in a way, perhaps today I'm indebted to him for a lesson he could never have intended. Now, after many years as a teacher myself, I realize that from that one shoddy, painful experience, I learned a lifetime of what not to do, of what a teacher must never do. That to write a note like that on a bad student's paper, to wrongly accuse the rebellious one, the troublesome, difficult one, no matter what our suspicions, is to risk destroying a spark that is already too close to being extinguished, the tenuous link with membership in the world.