Thursday, August 4, 2011

Going for Blood

When I entered college, several of my Sophomore friends counseled me to avoid the English teacher Mrs. Krafchick. Their warnings were often accompanied with the words, “She’s a tough grader.” I took care to request specific classes during registration, especially in English, because I wanted to sidestep an instructor that would make my life miserable.

You guessed it.

When I attended orientation, there on my class schedule, in all capital letters, the name KRAFCHICK jeered up at me. My spirit sagged. I hoped I could switch out of her class before the start of school, though fate would have her own way. I sat low man on the totem pole, one of many in a banner year of incoming freshman, and the school made rearranging classes near impossible. I gulped at the cruel joke destiny had played on me, and prepared to face my fears.

I entered Mrs. Krafchick’s classroom that first time with palms sweating and heart racing. She appeared younger than I had imagined, though her face drew to a pinch and her attitude boomed with authority. And because she had written the classroom textbook, I feared she would hold the book over our heads as a standard—the last word in the realm of the all-knowing lady at the front.

I landed a “D” on my first writing assignment, a hard dose to take, since I was an “A” and “B” student. My second attempt earned little better—a “C-”. Each paper foretold the dismal report card that was sure to arrive in my mailbox by the end of the quarter. On the day I dropped out, half-way through the term, I had worked myself all the way up to a “B+”. I stood outside her classroom, withdrawal notice in hand, waiting to get her signature as soon as the class dismissed. Imagine my astonishment when I heard through the door Mrs. Krafchick say my name and talk about the wonderful paper I had written. I hadn’t expected that. I wanted to get in and get out with my completed signature sheet and retreat to my home to plan my next life adventure.

I remember the disappointment that flicked in Mrs. Krafchick’s eyes when I presented the withdrawal slip and my feeble explanation of why I wanted to give up. She said nothing but handed me my paper with “B+” marked in bold letters at the top of the page. I left with the stigma of that humiliation. It was almost as if she had said, “I don’t understand why you’re leaving. You had such promise.” Her words, though imagined, have stuck with me some thirty plus years later.

I learned more than just how to write from Mrs. Krafchick. She taught me that to write clean copy, free of frilly, garbage can words (her words, not mine) required struggle—editing, shaping, word-upon-line-upon-paragraph warfare. If I wanted to write with clarity, I had to put in the effort, even if the process drew blood.

Had I stayed in that English class, I know I would have won a few more battles with my native language. I’ve had to learn to write by trial and error and rejection over the years, a skirmish I could have cut short with a bit more courage in the war of words. But I am grateful for the tidbits of wisdom I gleaned from her. I’ve filed them away somewhere inside my aging brain. They stand at the ready, popping up from time to time in hand-to-hand combat when I’m tempted to pad my sentences or use words like “utilize”. At times I lose the conflict, but because of my brief training with Mrs. Kraftchick, the fight has made all the difference.

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