In Year 10, my English teacher was Sr Edmund. She seemed ancient to me, although she was probably in her 60s. She walked a little hunched over and had something wrong with her feet (a bunion, maybe?) so that the back of her shoes were a good half inch from her feet.
She didn’t like teaching, I don’t think. Later I found out that she was a brilliant and well-educated woman, who should probably have been teaching post-graduates at uni, but there were no Catholic universities in Australia in those days, so she was reduced to teaching us – a group of not-very-enthusiastic 15-year-olds. I was enthusiastic about English; reading, thinking about it, talking about it: but not at all about writing essays.
Sr Edmund taught me to write an essay. Specifically, she taught me to write an essay about Macbeth. And she taught me by reading my paltry efforts closely, writing detailed comments, and then giving them back to me with the instruction to do it again.
Four times she gave it back. Five essays I wrote, and only after the fifth effort was she satisfied.
At the time, I complained loudly to my friends and dramatically to my family. I said it was unfair – she wasn’t making everyone do it over and over again; she was letting other people fail (even at the time, I knew that argument was specious, I knew that she was making me do it again because she believed I could do better); she was a hard marker, too hard, she was mean, she was (insert here whatever complaint you’ve ever made about a teacher).
But I did my five versions. And slowly (probably more slowly than I’ve ever learnt anything), I learnt to write an essay, rather than a randomly assorted assemblage of facts and opinions.
Sr Edmund was a hell of a teacher. I never had trouble with essay-writing ever again.
It worries me that I never thanked her (she’s dead now, of course). Because she didn’t only teach me to write essays.
She taught me to do as many drafts as it takes to get it right.
That’s an invaluable lesson, and it’s one I was thinking about while writing my last blog post about amateur and professional writing. I’m not saying that I gave every essay I ever wrote my undying, persistent attention. But it did mean I knew when I was just sloshing something together. That awareness carried over to fiction writing; that sense of ‘not quite right’ which means you have to do another draft. And seeing the difference between my first Macbeth essay and my last taught me why the drafts are necessary.
So thank you, Sr Edmund. I didn’t like you much, but that’s okay – I don’t think you liked me much, either. But you gave me the gift which proves you were a superlative teacher: a yardstick to measure my own effort and accomplishment against, so that I know when I’m not doing my best. And as a writer, you gave me an even greater gift: the willingness to redraft as many times as necessary, because I know it’s worth it.