A Tale of Two Teachers and Blank Sheets of Paper

With the current year fading fast and all of the potential of  a new year on the horizon, I’d like to suggest a resolution for everyone: don’t write on someone else’s blank sheet of paper.

Whether or not you let someone write on YOUR  paper is up to you, but please don’t write on someone else’s.

Personally, I’m resolving to avoid both.  For such an outwardly head strong, opinionated person, you might think the first will be more difficult.  But, for the unsure, worried and perpetually questioning me inside, the second will be just as challenging.

For years, I’ve let way too many people write on my paper. . . altering my story with their advice, opinions and standards. And the difference between someone who writes on your paper and someone who cheers as you write is long-lasting.

I learned this from two teachers and the blank sheets of paper they expected their students to fill.

I absolutely loved those blank sheets of paper.  I loved the smell. I loved the look. And I loved the endless possibilities.

During my grade school years, the paper wasn’t white. It was an indescribable shade of grey and tan with space for a picture above and a combination of dotted and solid lines below.  The purpose of the lines was to ensure appropriate hand-writing form.

I never worried about my handwriting (and was generally graded down accordingly).  I was much more worried about content. I was fascinated by how I could string words together to say something that nobody else had ever said. I adored the feeling of putting pencil to paper and creating something.  And I loved being able to express myself.

What I didn’t love was having parameters placed on me.

And those parameters were set forth quite firmly by my first grade teacher, Mrs. Gladwill. Unfortunately, I can’t really say anything nice about the woman.  I could write pages about the horrors of that school year –about the times I was stuck in the corner so other students wouldn’t cheat off me; about how needing to go to the bathroom was a nightmare because it was prohibited during class time (Mrs. Gladwill’s theory was that if you didn’t have the sense to go during recess or lunch, then you should wait); about how Mrs. Gladwill liberally used harsh words and a ruler on knuckles; and, most of all, about how Mrs. Gladwill required conformity.

For a “spirited” child, there’s no wonder that I didn’t thrive in first grade. I simply survived. And was beholden to a series of lessons that led me to believe that sometimes it’s easier to just let others control what goes on your blank sheet of paper.

That became evident when Mrs. Gladwill gave all of her students the assignment of  writing (and drawing) an answer to the question  “what do you want to be when you grow up?”

At first, I was very excited about the assignment.  With Mrs. Gladwill as a teacher, I should have known better.

I wanted to write about becoming a trapeze artist. My father had built and hung a trapeze from a juniper tree in our backyard, and I was already practicing my act.

The problem was, I didn’t know how to spell trapeze.

When I asked Mrs. Gladwill, her only advice was to look it up in the “book of careers” she had provided us.

Needless to say, trapeze artist wasn’t listed.

So I had to ask Mrs. Gladwill again.

Instead of helping me spell out my dream, she advised me to write about something “normal”, like becoming a nurse.

I had no desire to be nurse, but I recognized the authority she had. So, I reluctantly looked up nurse in the career book and wrote about how I wanted to be one. I even remember drawing the picture with particularly harsh strokes: I was angry that Mrs. Gladwill had taken control of MY piece of paper.  At the same time, I did not want to be in trouble. So my blank sheet of paper became a full sheet of paper that was a lie.

Turning in that paper marked the end of my dreams of becoming a trapeze artist.  Mrs. Gladwill had made it clear: if it wasn’t in the book about careers, there was no sense in pursuing it.

By second grade, my dreams had evolved anyway.  My new ambition was to become a writer.

Much to my surprise, my teacher, Mrs. Roth, never told me to look up writer in the “career book.” In fact, she didn’t even have a career book. She simply encouraged me to write stories whenever I had extra time. She even taped my stories on the outside of her classroom door where others could read them. And they did.

I remember swelling with pride when fourth graders stopped by our classroom to read my stories.

Since then, that dream of being a writer has never died.  I can’t say I’ve fully achieved that goal, but I never gave it up. It’s hard to give up something when others, particular teachers, believe in you.

So as 2012 approaches, I’m raising a glass to toast the blank sheets of paper everyone will receive in the new year. And I’m toasting the opportunity we all have to continue writing our own unique story without being told what the plot should be.  I’m also raising a glass to how we can all cheer each other on. And most of all, I’m raising a glass to the great teachers who lead the way.  Not only do they encourage so many of us, but they also serve as examples for other teachers by acknowledging that sometimes the most meaningful lessons aren’t the ones that are taught but are the ones that are observed.

Here’s to that! Cheers!

About Trina Bartlett

I live in the Eastern Panhandle of WV, with one dog, two cats, a theater kid in high school, a band kid at West Virginia University and a husband who works strange hours. When I'm not working as a director at a nonprofit social service organization or being a mom, I can generally be found riding my bike, walking my dog and stirring things up.

Posted on December 28, 2011, in My life, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Trina, you are definitely a writer! Thanks for this post & for reminding “us” of the joys of blank paper. For me it’s not words, but designs(jewelry), that go on my paper.

    As I approach the new year though, it’ll be words. Words that form the plans(hopes, dreams, goals) for the next year & beyond. Now I have a reminder to decide how much I let others influence what goes on my paper.

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