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Defining Moments

A 1-post collection

Can they see me?

Neil Gaiman said something interesting on his Tumblr, today. The whole post is here but the meat of it is this:

Your job isn’t to convince your teachers that they are wrong, just as it’s not your job to accept their prejudices. Your job is to learn enough from them that when you become a famous writer, whether of fantasy or of something else, they’ll have to be proud of you anyway.

And it's a lovely, inspiring message. There's lots of teachers who would prefer their students to be writing High Literature, the Next Classic, or something they like to read, like cheesy romance novels.

But I have to talk about the teacher I had when I repeated year twelve1. She was not the inspiring kind. There's two kinds of teachers you get in public schooling, and she was the Other one.

FYI - the two kinds are this: The kind who cares too much and burns out young, and the kind who could care less if you had an instrument that measured pico-cares.

This English teacher was one of those, with a side order of Real Literature Is This. This was a teacher whose love of the written word stopped at 'classics'. Classics were real literature and my favourite genre - Science Fiction - wasn't even close. You couldn't point her at Frankenstein: A Modern Prometheus and say, "Look, a classic!" without her curling her lip.

And I was great in English. Every teacher I had would save my creative writing assignments for last because, and this is more or less a straight quote, even though they knew it would be 'weird', they also knew it would be well written.

Well, I had SciFi Cooties, according to that teacher. She'd grade me on a technical level and add, "Do you have to make this Science Fiction?" on every grade I got.

This was 1990, folks. Sci Fi was drying up. My favourite shows were being cancelled left and right. I was suffering from some serious Sci Fi deprivation and I only had me as a source. So of firkin course I had to boldy go into the realms where that teacher felt the least comfortable.

My breaking point was at the end of the year. Everyone had to take this enormous test that took the whole day. It was the pinnacle of our educations and our standardised answers and essays and all that nonsense would be the hinge upon which the rest of our lives swung. Kids everywhere dreaded the HSC test.

And part of that test was creative writing. Our teacher was duty bound to read examples of creative writing stories to everyone. And she skipped the Science Fiction. She did it with a sneer. "Oh. That one's just Science Fiction." And moved on.

Those words, and that dismissive tone, were burned into my soul.

I was incensed. I lingered after class and came to her and asked what was wrong with Science Fiction. She looked at me, knew me (belike) as That Nerdy Kid, and said, "I don't want to discuss it."

I wouldn't have it. "Why? What's wrong with it? Why is it bad?"

"You have another class to go to." And she picked up her things and wouldn't say another word.

I shouted after her, "IT STILL HAS VALUE!"

To this day, I don't know if she heard it at all. I don't know if she listened, or dismissed it as Nerdiness from the Nerdiest of Nerds.

I had the small dream that that SciFi example of yesteryear was a thing I wrote. I had a slightly bigger dream of teaching this teacher that my favourite genre had the most potential. That wonder and looking forward had their place in the world.

That was my first encounter with a closed mind. And the worst of it was that she was a teacher. Teachers aren't supposed to recite dead lessons. They're supposed to inspire interest, they're supposed to invoke wonder in the world by having it themselves. I could have got the same educational value from her if she had all her lessons pre-recorded and played on a boom box.

Sure, I could be the best writer on the block. Sure, I could make the best seller list. Sure, I could plausibly write the #1 best SciFi book of all time. But she won't even look at it, because her mind is inside a box with no windows. And I doubt that she'd even remember my name.

I was That Nerdy Kid. The statistical outlier who should not be counted. And even if I'm globally lauded as the world's best writer of all time, she will still dismiss what I write because it's just Science Fiction.

And that's her problem. It will never be mine.

There is no 'just' anything. It all has value. Even the hurried scribblings of a student trying desperately to prove something to their teacher.

  1. Note for all the non-Australians reading this. Public schooling in the great southern land is really different. Our school year begins in January, and our schools are simply Primary and Secondary. Or 'school' and 'high school'. When I went through it, years 1-7 were primary, and 8-12 were secondary. We've mixed things up a bit and now years 1-6 are primary and year 7 has moved up to secondary because everyone does Prep now. Which is the year before year 1, and a lot like Kindergarten.