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Without question, my favourite class in high school was Writer’s Craft. It was a workshop course, where we wrote in various genres, and I did well in it. In many of my other courses, I was content to do the minimum amount of work necessary to obtain a decent grade. In Writer’s Craft, there was no assignment too difficult, no amount of homework too much. My teacher clearly enjoyed teaching the subject, and his critiques of our work were precise in nature but warm in sentiment.
In each final year class, we were required to complete an individual study to be worth a significant portion of our final mark. As I was completing one in all of my classes that year, and with Writers’ Craft last on my schedule, I was quite out of ideas by the time it came to choose a topic. I confessed to my lack of imagination, and my teacher handed me a list of suggested topics for guidance, containing such ideas as:
“Write an alternate ending for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, from the perspective of the nurse”.
“Compare and contrast the construction of English and Italian sonnets, with particular reference to Petrarch and Shakespeare.”
Well, no. I don’t want to do Shakespeare. Wait…what’s this?
“Write a 15 minute, one-act play in the style of the Theatre of the Absurd.”
We have a winner. It’s just unusual enough (read: intellectually pretentious) that it appeals to me. Plus that, how hard can it be to write a fifteen minute play? And isn’t the point that nothing happens in Theatre of Absurd? Aren’t those guys – what do you call them? – still waiting on Godot? I advised my teacher of my proposed topic. He raised an eyebrow, but otherwise said nothing.
And so I threw myself in with two feet. Aware that I needed a solid understanding of the genre, I read Pinter, Ionescu, and, of course, Beckett. I started piecing together meaningless bits of dialogue. I contemplated burying one of my characters up to his neck in sand, but decided that’s already been done. After a while, I started to feel as if I’d been buried in sand. None of this made sense. Eventually, I pulled together one act, which if performed would likely run to five, not fifteen minutes, and which involved some incomprehensible language, the repetitive opening and closing of a refrigerator door by one of the characters (stage note: refrigerator light is to light up randomly), and long, agonized silences.
I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. In theory, I could piece together the elements of the genre, but in practice, it was clear that I was floundering. But I was too proud, and by this point, far too late to start over. Other students had had regular status meetings with our teacher, who guided them to their finished product. I’ve avoided them, too embarrassed to admit that my assignment was not going well. I finished the last draft minutes before it was due and hastily shoved the printed pages into a duotang. I hoped that somehow, the written word will meld with my own feeling of hopelessness and turn out all right.
Marks are assigned. My duotang arrived at my desk. I opened the cover with my eyes closed.
Sixty-two percent. 62! I’ve never had a mark in the sixties in an English class. Math? Sure. Not English. I try without a calculator to figure out what effect this mark will have on my final average. I give up quickly.
I contemplated crying. I certainly said a few choice words under my breath. I made a show of appearing to feel robbed. I swaggered up to my teacher and told him that this mark – finger jabbing at the red numbers on the page, – THIS mark is the lowest I’d ever seen in an English class!
His response was cool. “That mark is the lowest mark you’ve ever earned, Marcelle. Read my comments.”
And so I did. Everything he said was correct. Predictably, he saw right through me: he called me on the errors in my preparation, my sloppy writing, and my lack of imagination. He reminded me that his assistance had been available all throughout the process, and that my failure to take advantage of that assistance was probably the main reason I’d been so unsuccessful. He’d trusted me to handle the assignment because he thought I had the capacity for it. He had expected much more from me than I had bothered to deliver. And he was disappointed.
As was I. After a brief period where I cursed myself for even thinking myself capable of writing an Absurdist play (“Have I even lived long enough to understand absurdity?” I asked a friend) I was forced to accept that I alone was responsible for my mark, and the lesson I learned in the process has been invaluable. For that reason, I thank my OAC Writers’ Craft teacher, Mr. Bedford, for the much needed dose of humility, and for teaching me that, in the words of our old writing prompt, the journey – in this case, the preparation – is as important as the destination.