School starts tomorrow. My girls are juniors in high school. I remember being a junior in high school. I was the editor of the feature page of The Arlington Eagle, our high school newspaper. The following year I would be the editor in chief. I divvied out assigned articles; I cut and slashed stories with a red pen. I won awards. I was a good writer and I knew it.
Skip ahead a few years and I’m at BYU, sitting in an English Lit. class. Every time I make a comment, the professor looks at the clock. I assume I bore him almost as much as he bores me. I try to be witty, insightful—it doesn’t matter. I’m doomed to mediocrity in his eyes. Then one day, the professor reads an excerpt from my paper and pronounces, “This is an excellent paper!” He hands it to the girl sitting behind me and she takes it with a sheepish smile.
I sit in the class, stunned. What now? Approach the professor? The girl? Stand up and proclaim the credit that is rightfully mine? No. In that take-my-breath-away moment, I realize something. The opinion of the professor, the girl, and my classmates really doesn’t matter. My thoughts and my ability to communicate them remain the same regardless of their thoughts. This is a hard lesson to learn. I have to remind myself of it often.
I was reminded of it today when I read this blog post by Bill Kenower, editor of Author Magazine. “Unfortunately, if you live by the sword of opinion, then you die by the sword of opinion. If I am a good writer one day because my professor says I am, then I am a bad writer the next because the college literary editor says I am not. I wish I could remember the exact day I stopped tethering my work’s value to someone else’s opinion as well as I can remember all that praise and criticism, but I cannot. I cannot, because there never was such a moment. I started out not caring, as do we all. That tethering had to be learned, a useless attempt to stave off the perceived loneliness born of asking yourself a question that only you can answer.”
Tomorrow my girls will go to school. Teachers, some indifferent and some engaged, will mark up their papers with red pens. I wish I could tell them that all that marking doesn’t matter, but it does. It will matter to them.
Just as it mattered to me until that moment when I realized that it no longer did. Bill Kenower didn’t have that moment. But I did. I didn’t recognize it at that loss of breath moment in the BYU classroom, but I realize now that I was (am) lucky.