The first time I felt like a scholastic failure when my grade five teacher handed me a story I’d written about travelling to Mars with my best-friend Lisa. I remember expecting him to be pleased, or impressed. He was not. He said my stories were all too similar and suggested I try writing something different I remember how proud I was of the story, and how crushed I was by his reaction.
I haven’t written a story about space exploration since.
As you might imagine, this extinguished a creative spark that was trying to surface. My days as a teacher’s pet had come to an end, and my days as a good student were over.
This teacher may not have liked my short stories, but the dude showed some serious foresight when he suggested to my mother that I move to Silicon Valley to work with computers during a parent-teacher interview when she mentioned my passion for typing. Even now, I find it remarkable that anyone living in a blue-collar town in northwestern Ontario, in 1976, was aware of a technology industry blossoming 3,600 kilometers away, in sunny California.
I suppose it seems fitting that I eventually chose work as a technical writer, allowing me to combine my love of clacking keys with a generally-accepted way of earning a living.
Still, the need for creative self-expression simmered.
I revisited my academic past for answers the summer my son graduated from high school. As I spent a weekend cleaning out stacks of accumulated school work from his elementary days, a few things about my scholastic failure surfaced.
Sure, my artistic temperament was on the rise, but so was my rebellion. It was bound to be. After all, I had been on the opposing side after being a teacher’s pet for three years by proximity to L, a bossy and self-centered with a mean streak who somehow secured special privileges for she and her posse of three. The highlight of my academic career was being moved mid-year, with L, upon request, from grade five to grade six. As you might suspect, the idea was L’s, but I was the one who did the asking.
Over a two-year period, life changed for me. L moved out west with her family; I learned to blush deeply in the classroom when called upon, a new skill induced by a teacher who showcased his dislike of students by singling us out; I broke away from new friends, a trio of straight-laced classmates to avoid the ridicule of an older sister and her equally cool pals; my parents marriage dissolved into temporary separation.
By the time I got to high school, I was already an academic and social disaster.
As I separated the stacks bundled by grades — junior kindergarten through eight — I noticed the personal and creative art pieces gave way to pages of assignments that focused on core subjects: spelling and language, math and science.
For years, I considered possibilities for my educational failure: Shyness and social anxiety; an unstable family life; the switch from open-concept, work-at-your-own-pace style of learning to a standardized, assigned-seating classroom format. In truth, all these contributed, but the most detrimental element was being forced to abandon the artist I was becoming, before I even knew what it meant to be an artist, for theoretical subjects I had little interest in and even less aptitude for.
I lost the minute the system replaced creative expression with academic instruction.
The message to me was clear: There is no place for creative impulse in institutional learning. Therefore, there was no place for me.