By Suzan Moyer
Thousands of geniuses live and die undiscovered — either by themselves or by others.
I stood at the front of my classroom and drew a stick figure on the whiteboard. Next to it I drew a rectangle.
I turned around to my sixth-grade students and announced, "This little stick man is you. This rectangle is what you write for me. When I talk to you about how to fix this," I said, pointing to the rectangle, "I am not talking about what is wrong with this." I moved my finger to point to the stick figure.
Just to be clear, I pointed back to the rectangle again. "This is not the same as," I moved my finger to the stick figure, "this."
Every September, I start my first writing lesson with this conversation. Many writers have trouble separating comments about their work from comments about them, and I think this is especially true for young writers.
But now it was May, and the kids were finishing up their last big writing assignment. They were told to describe a time when something funny happened at a serious event. It had to be first-person narrative, and they were to write about one thing. This is always challenging for sixth-graders because most of the time they want to write a laundry list of events, call it a story, and say they're done.
Naomi's first story for me in September consisted of six sentences: This summer, I got to sleep in every day. I helped my mom take care of the garden. I learned to make pancakes. We went to Worlds of Fun. It was fun. The End.
Over the school year, things started to click for Naomi, and her writing skills began to blossom. When I introduced this final assignment, Naomi was excited to tell about a wedding her family attended during Spring Break. I looked over her story chart that Tuesday and saw that she correctly completed the character and setting boxes. She also filled in several notes for "rising action," and correctly labeled her dad running down the aisle as her "climax."
Naomi laid her completed draft on my desk Friday morning. I told her we would go over it during class that afternoon, so she could complete her final draft over the weekend. I read her draft during lunch, and her story was fantastic:
My cousin, Becca, was getting married, and she wanted her dog, Aspen, to be in her wedding.
I found myself smiling as I read because Naomi was using every tool we had covered in our lessons.
"Make sure your brother walks Aspen before the ceremony," Aunt Kathy told Becca. "You know what Aspen does if she gets too excited."
I was laughing out loud as I finished Naomi's story. It was wonderful. All we needed to go over Friday afternoon was some spelling and punctuation errors. It was the best thing I'd ever read of Naomi's.
I sat with her at a round table that afternoon and had her read her story out loud. As she read, I marveled at how much of her own personality was coming through in her writing. Additionally, Naomi found some spelling errors and a run-on sentence without any prompting from me.
The pitch of her voice got higher, and her pace quickened.
"After the minister prayed, Aunt Jennifer stood up to sing 'The Lord's Prayer,' Aspen never liked hearing Aunt Jennifer sing..."
"Right there, Naomi," I interrupted. "The sentence ends right there. You need to put a period after 'Prayer' instead of the comma."
Naomi stopped reading. She stared at her paper for several seconds.
"Right here," I said again. "Here's where you need to put a period."
Naomi erased the comma and replaced it with a period. Instead of continuing reading, however, she just stared at her paper.
"Go on," I said. "Finish your story."
Naomi started reading again, but now her voice sounded tight, like someone was choking her. I thought she might have just swallowed some air until I noticed giant tears running down her cheeks.
"What's wrong?" I asked, suddenly shocked. What in the world had just happened?
Naomi's breathing quickened, tears were streaming down her cheeks, and she began hiccupping and sobbing.
"Naomi, what's wrong?"
She gulped, panted, and finally choked out, "This is the best part of my story, and all you could say was that I needed a period here."
The floor dropped out below me, and my stomach knotted. We had been rushed after lunch, and I never told Naomi that I thought her story was wonderful. I just sat down with her and started telling her what needed fixing.
Suddenly, my "stick figure" was holding her "rectangle," and there were big tears running down her cheeks.
How could I have been so thoughtless?
The best lesson in the world can fall flat if I forget how fragile people really are. Maybe I can show on a whiteboard that we are separate stick figures from our rectangles of work, but sometimes we wrap those rectangles around our heart, and it hurts when someone points out what needs to be fixed. We are not the rectangles we produce each day, but our rectangles are precious to us. Naomi reminded me again to treat the rectangle carefully because some days those rectangles are the only thing that makes us feel good about ourselves.