A Successful Failure in School
The walls in the classroom seemed to close in on me as I entered. There were no bars on the windows, but this part of my school was a prison to my wafer thin sixteen-year-old body.
A big “F” for failure hung in the air that was invisible to the other students that started to come through the door, but was looming large in front of me. A failure that sentenced me to spending an extra year in high school.
I had failed Grade 11 and had to repeat it.
The year before, I wanted to escape from this ugly red brick building and pursue my dream of being a dancer, but no one was ready to give a nearly-sixteen year old a job to pay for her dance classes. My parents told me that they would cover my living expenses and training at a well-renowned ballet school if I finished my Grade 12. So I was stuck in this place of boring teachers and students who liked to tease and bully this shy and awkward girl.
The Grade 11 course was a general rather than a university entrance course with a very different group of inmates that were a year younger than I was. I was not interested in getting to know them – I just wanted school to be over with as soon as possible. The only people who usually noticed me were bullies anyway, I thought.
The subjects that sparked a grain of interest were English and History. In English class, I looked over the books on a table which we would be covering that year. Uhmm…. studied Huckleberry Finn last year but these other books look interesting, I thought. Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, something by some guy named Kurt Vonnegut, whoever that was. I collected a copy of each title and sat down.
Enter Mr. Engehart
A short 30-something, dark-haired man entered the classroom and introduced himself as Mr. Engehart (all names have been changed), my new English teacher. His welcoming smile put me at ease.
Something told me he was going to be very different from my last English teacher, Mrs. Jones. She was a stout elderly lady whose iron grey hair was pulled back in a tight bun.
She stood in front of the class and told the yawning students what she thought various books were saying. She expected our essays to reflect her views, and to have university-level grammar and spelling.
Our first assignment was the cliché “what I did last summer” essay. As Mr. Engehart handed the marked papers back to the class, he leaned over my desk and said, “Please see me after class and bring your assignment with you.” A teacher had never asked me to stay after school before. I was puzzled. I looked at the paper. “C-“ it said. I shrugged my shoulders. All my school marks were low - nothing new about that. After class, I nervously walked over to his desk and gave him my paper.
“Oh yes.” He pushed his dark-rimmed glasses up his nose as he looked at my pathetic C-. “Even though the mark is low, I can see that you have the potential to write well.”
“Really?” I was stunned.
“Yes. All you need is some instruction on how to write an essay correctly.” He started to explain the mechanics of the kind of writing he was looking for. It made sense to me.
“Thank you,” I said sincerely. A teacher actually believed I could do well at something. Unbelievable!
Take that, Mrs. Jones
After that, I never got less than an B- on my English assignments. When Mr. Engehart handed one paper back to me a few months later, I was surprised to see that the essay was covered in red marks.
“I had sent this to an outside marker,” he explained. “Her corrections of your grammar and spelling are correct, but I felt that you have done what I asked. You developed your theme very well.”
He pointed out that he had scribbled out a C- and upgraded it to a B-.
Take that, Mrs. Jones! I thought, recognizing her scrawl. I beamed with satisfaction at the payback for all the 60s she had given me the last two years.
What is your opinion?
Mr. Engehart had a passion for literature and history that was infectious.
“In Mark Twain’s time, black people were treated like property. They had no rights and were often physically abused,” he might say to introduce Huckleberry Finn. His voice trembled with emotion as he continued.
“Black women in particular had a horrible life. They were beaten, raped, and often had their children ripped from their arms to be sold to someone else.” As he talked on about the plight of slaves in the American South, my eyes started to tear. Literature isn’t so boring afterall - it is life.
After we had read several chapters of Huckleberry Finn, Mr. Engehart would to open the floor for discussion. “Now, can someone tell me how was the relationship between Huck and Jim different from the master-slave relationship…. Carola?”
I would sqwirm in my seat, furtively looking around to see if anyone was poised to laugh at me or smirk at my stupidity but there were no mocking bullies in this class. Instead, the other students listened to me intently and added their own comments, which supported my observation that Huck and Jim had become good friends in spite of Jim being a slave and Huck being white in late 1800s’ American South.
Mr. Engehart often called on me after that, and I eventually overcame my fear of ridicule. Whether it was a discussion on the weaknesses of communism in Animal Farm, or whether or not if television would replace books in a modern world like Fahrenheit 451, I became a fountain of comments on modern culture. I started taking more interest in my other subjects, such as History. My school marks rocketed out of the low 50s and 60s to the 70s and 80s,
I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed school. For the first time in my life, the classroom was a place where it was safe to be me. Who knew that I could make an intelligent comment in class that a teacher and other students would praise as being insightful? In the past, some of my classmates labelled me as stupid and made fun of me. Now, they actually listened to and respected me.
A new girl named Molly transferred into our classroom that winter. Mr. Engehart stopped at my desk one day. “Can you please help Molly with her essays? I don’t think that her last school covered that.” Molly was very shy and a little nervous at first when we met at study hall.
“I know how you feel,” I said. “Writing essays looks tough. I just learned how to do this myself this year.”
“I appreciate you teaching me,” she said. We set to work. I explained the intricacies of writing essays to her and reviewed her work. A few weeks later, Mr. Engehart congratulated me. “Molly has improved her composition skills tremendously. Thanks for helping her.”
That spring, I got 97% on my last composition exam. The crowning achievement was yet to come near the end of the year.
“You have the highest score in English and Composition in your class and one of the highest in all the Grade 11 classes,” Mr. Engehart said. “I would like you to enter an essay contest.” I enthusiastically scribbled my submission. I didn’t win, but I didn’t care. It was awesome just to be able to participate in something like that.
I passed Grade 11 and entered Grade 12 with – you guessed it – Ms. Jones for English. After completing high school, I pursued my dreams of being dancer. After a year, I decided that the world of dance was not for me.
Becoming a writer
For months I was lost without my dream of becoming a dancer, but then I remembered Mr. Engehart and his belief in my writing talent. The sensitivity that tormented me as a dance student enhanced my writing abilities.
I wrote an article for a newspaper Sunday supplement on how Europeans immigrants saw Canada, their adopted country. To my surprise and delight, the newspaper published it. A month later, they published a children’s story of mine.
By the time I was ready to apply for a journalism course at my local college, I had a portfolio of published work to show them. I was accepted to the college, one of only 20 students selected from over one hundred applicants. I have been writing ever since.
I will always be grateful to Mr. Engehart, who not only helped me uncover my writing talent, but whose belief in me helped me to restore my belief in myself.
© 2014 Carola Finch