Mrs. Law wasn’t a bad teacher. She wasn’t fun and friendly like Miss Kauffmann, Dave’s second grade teacher, but she wasn’t downright mean, like Mrs. Murphy, who awaited me in fourth grade, either.
She set up a little book corner in the back of the room‑‑mostly Dr. Seuss. I remember feeling insulted the first time I picked up The Cat in the Hat. “This is a baby book,” I proclaimed, trying on my critic’s voice in front of Mrs. Law. Most of the boys agreed. But later, I noticed that, if you read it right, it could sound kind of cool some days.
Fridays in Mrs. Law’s classroom held a special joy for me, not just because we got to go home for the weekend, but because that was the day we got to read My Weekly Reader. It made me feel grown-up, like I was reading the newspaper, the way my parents did on Sunday afternoons after church and dinner.
One day stands out about that year, a day in January when we all had to write about our Christmas vacation. I had gone ice skating for the first time and I came back to school eager to tell everyone about it. What great good luck, I thought, that on our first day back, Mrs. Law would give me the chance to write about it. I had come a long way from those early days of braille when I reveled in writing letters of non sequitur sentences to my classmate, Howard Wolcott. As I punched out my paragraph, I kept thinking, This is fun! Writing about it is almost like skating all over again.
“All right, who wants to read theirs first?” Mrs. Law asked. My hand shot up before she got halfway through her question. Mrs. Law said I would have to let some other people read first. (I put my hand up first a lot.) I tried hard to listen to the other people read and to tell them what I liked about their writing. Finally, Mrs. Law asked me to read mine. If she said anything good, I don’t remember it. All I remember is that she criticized me for writing the sentence, “We put on my skates.”
“Did you put on your skates, or did someone else put them on for you?”
I told her my dad mostly put them on but I helped a little. She said people don’t usually say “We put on my skates.” She said that people usually put on their own skates, but if I really didn’t put them on, I should say that my father put them on.
“But I helped‑‑at least a little.” My eyes started to burn.
“Well it isn’t clear the way you wrote it and most people don’t say ‘We put on my skates,’” she said, and then she moved on to the next person.
For a short time, I hated her and I hated writing. I secretly vowed never to take another risk in her classroom and, in fact, to go out of my way to make the most boring compositions I could. Fortunately for me, Overbrook had a school newspaper, The Red and White, which came out four times a year, and I couldn’t resist the desire to feel my own words in braille, not from a slate and stylus, but from a real braille printing press. Only months after that incident, The Red and White published my first submission, a story about scoring my first run in baseball and how I was so happy I jumped up and down.
In hindsight, having been a teacher of writing at the high school level, I have more empathy for Mrs. Law. From the other side of the desk, I know the balancing act one must do when responding to a student’s writing, that dance on the line between praise and criticism. Still, to this day, I wonder how much effect that small event has had on my self-acceptance and self-criticism as a writer, that balance between caring about others’ opinions of my work and trusting my own judgment.