After posting my last chapter, I was hoping things would change: I'd be getting lots of readers, lots of whom would score my story, lots of whom would do so highly, and soon I'd be receiving plenty of complimentary feedback. It was normal, I thought, that my first attempts wouldn't be very strong, but the community would be impressed with my growth. This was all the feedback I received:
Your so-called story was extremely disappointing. After reading its description, which by some miraculous and seemingly unrepeatable whim of fate had no notable spelling mistakes, I became convinced that I was at last about to read something worthwhile, both in content and in form. I found instead a mess I would have been ashamed to call my own when I was in 5th grade. Certainly, my 5th grade students could do better back when I was a teacher.
There are so many mistakes that I will simply insist you get someone to edit your work before you dare post it again. I would suggest you stop writing altogether, but one must be realistic, after all. If, as I fear, you plan to inflict your work on an unsuspecting world again, I demand that you have it corrected in advance.
If this letter has by any chance dissuaded you from further literary adventures, or at least made you realise the extent of your incompetence, my purpose will have been sufficiently fulfilled.
I cried when I read it. She was right. I continued getting extremely low scores, because I simply wasn't good enough. Something in particular called my attention though: a woman called Rosalind had been my primary school teacher. She had, as I remembered, been quite a pleasant and kind, if strict, woman, with a love for language and literature that school children weren't able to destroy. It would be such an unlikely coincidence, but what if she were the same Rosalind? After carefully drafting and redrafting a reply, I sent her the following:
Forgive my form of address, but I don't know your surname, and so I can't use the correct greeting. I am very sorry to have disappointed you, and I am sadly certain that you were correct in every detail on your letter: I simply don't seem to be able to produce good stories.
As you thought, I would like to continue trying though. My school teachers taught me to persist, and it would hardly be to their credit if I gave up so easily. Perhaps, understanding my shortcomings as you do, and having had experience teaching, I may prevail on you to act as my editor. I am sorry if this request may seem to you excessively forward, but I am entirely out of ideas. No-one else bothered even sending any feedback, so you are my only hope, and thus I come to you as a supplicant.
On a personal matter, I once had a school teacher who bore your very name. Do you happen to be Miss Harris? If so, I would be pleased to meet you again and perhaps reminisce, whether you decide to bestow your guidance or not.
It took several days until I got a reply from Rosalind. I spent that time out of sorts, fearing that she'd accept and fearing that she'd refuse, that she'd be the Rosalind Harris and that she wouldn't, that she'd be disappointed and mocking or furious and offended. Finally, I got a reply, and it took all my courage to read it.
Your letter was an interesting surprise. It was pleasant to see that, when you try, you can manage to arrange words into grammatically valid English sentences, and that you can write a handful of those sentences without serious orthographical sins. It was also a surprise because I am indeed Rosalind Harris, as you surmised.
While I was at first disinclined to grant your request, on further thought it appears that, much as I wish it otherwise, my teaching did not bear what fruits I expected. Since I gather you were my student, and a teacher is always a teacher, it hardly seems ethical to let you flounder on with your conspicuously inadequate skills. You may come to visit next Friday. Bring me some of your work, printed out, double spaced, and perhaps I may attempt to supplement what I was unable to build when you were a child.
You must remember though, that those skills which nature does not choose to supply, may not be bestowed by the hand of any teacher, and I'm afraid your limitations are more likely to be attributable to nature than to my shortcomings, if you will permit me to be the judge in this matter, though one ought not be the judge in one's own case.
Meeting her was a shock. It had been long since I had done my 5th grade, and time had left its footprints. The mature and lively woman whom I had thought a tad pretty had become old and somewhat forbidding. All those years stood between us like a wall, and my previous, abiding, and deep respect for my teacher, made it difficult to relate to her in such a completely different setting. In fact, I must have blushed all over when I gave her my last attempt at a story.
"Very well. I see that you can at least follow simple instructions, so we have something to build on. Now why don't you make me some tea while I check this?" she said as she picked up her red marker. "There are tea bags by the kettle."
I went to her kitchen, small and very neat, feeling full of misgivings. She had shown me around her cottage when I arrived, but being alone in one of her rooms felt oddly intimate. The fact she was my teacher wasn't making things any easier. I was anxious about her reaction to my story, both because of the likely mistakes she would notice and the content itself. I was fond of writing about female domination, and I feared such ideas would offend Miss Harris, even if the story she had replied to was on the same theme.
A few minutes passed and everything was ready: the water had boiled and the tea bags had been steeped. Miss Harris hadn't told me how she liked hers, so I thought it best to bring some milk and sugar with me. I looked for a tray but didn't find one, so I would have to make several trips.
"How do you drink your tea, Miss?"
"I have it with a little milk and no sugar, thanks", she said as she continued her task.
It wasn't a very long story, and by the time our tea was drunk she had finished working on it. I had been looking at her, growing more and more nervous, just waiting as she traced through it with her red marker. At last she returned the story to me, and it was full of red.
"This is dreadful stuff", she said. "Surely I taught you better than that! I remember you being a reasonably clever child. Everyone talks about the wonderful rewards of teaching: you meet a student a few years later, and they have become a person of substance. Somehow they always forget to talk about the disappointments, though, like a perfectly unobjectionable child who grows up into someone like you."
I was on the edge of tears. I knew that my work wasn't good enough, that's why I had sought an editor, but I had expected someone like Miss Harris to be more understanding. Belatedly, I remembered I had thought of her as strict but fair, and that fairness didn't seem to be doing me a lot of good.
"Miss, I'm sorry it was so bad. I really did try and I want to improve. Will you help me?"
"I said I would, didn't I? We'll see what we can do with you. For now, I think you should read my corrections, redraft that story, and come back next Friday. I am willing to help you out with stylistic issues, plot and characterisation, but there's little point in that until you get the basics right, and right they are not. You won't waste my time, though. Obvious spelling mistakes, those which even a dumb computer can correct, won't be acceptable. If you bring me work without doing the barest preparation, I will have to reconsider."
"Thank you, Miss. I guess it must be frustrating for you to see my work, but my job doesn't involve a lot of writing." I was the co-owner of a small computer consultancy, and I hoped to impress my ex-teacher with my success.
"I certainly hope not, for your sake and that of your employers. In any event, you shall also write some lines."
"Write lines?" I was shocked at the notion.
"You heard me the first time, young man. You've written the word 'humiliation' and its close cousins incorrectly more times than I had the patience to count. So you will write 'it is humiliating to write the word "humiliation" with two els' ... let us say 200 times for next Friday. If you found the energy to write it wrongly so many times, surely it should be just as easy to write it correctly, and it should give your hand some good habits."
"Did that ever work when you were ten?
"No, but Miss--"
"Well then, don't expect it to work now either. At least not if you wish me to help you. Now it grows late. Take this stuff back to the kitchen and be back next Friday with something better."
I spent the week working at my computer business, but I made sure I completed Miss Harris' lines and I worked on fixing everything she had corrected. Some of the mistakes were simple, as she had said: just running a spell checker improved things a little. Others, though, were more subtle. Miss Harris had marked everything in very terse notation: subject-verb-agreement, missing comma, ambiguous, and so on. There were also quite a few comments about word choice, and I took them all to heart. If I had asked for help, by definition I wasn't able to evaluate whether my choices or hers were better, and really, what was more likely?
At last, Friday arrived, and I found myself again at Miss Harris' door. She let me in, sat at her favourite chair, and I sat opposite her.
"Let's start from the beginning. Show me your lines."
I did. She looked at them for a while and handed them back to me.
"Good. Hand in your work then."
I gave her my corrected story, and she picked up her red marker again.
"What are you waiting for? Tea, and put those lines in the garbage bin."
I was a little shocked at her abruptness, but she had always been rather strict, and I suppose I should have realised that she intended to use the same process. Perhaps something of the habit of obeying her was still inside me, because it never crossed my mind to do anything else.
We finished our tea, and she gave me the story back. It was still quite red, but things had clearly improved some.
"Now, Eric, this draft shows you've been working hard. I can't fault your effort, which is obvious, but it's still sub-standard work. Rubbish. It's going to take us a long time to set everything right, and it doesn't seem like you have good instincts. Probably that non-writing job of yours."
It hurt to hear my work called rubbish, but I wasn't there to be told pleasant lies. On the other hand, it was comforting to know she thought we could do something about it, and I was pleased she had noticed and appreciated my hard work. Things could have been much worse.
"Now, the main character in your story is called Adam. From this fact alone I deduce he is a boy like you, is that right?"
"Yes, a man."
"Well, why do you speak of 'her' clothes then? Don't tell me it's intended, you mix up the male and female forms of 3rd person pronouns all over this story. What on earth is wrong with you! Don't you know the difference?"
"Yes, Miss, but ... I guess I somehow forget about it. You know, while I'm writing, I'm thinking of the story and imagining it is all happening and I just, you know, lose track of those details."
"Well, I certainly can understand. You will work on this, though. I don't particularly mind whether you write it correctly the first time, or whether you fix it afterwards, but this is the last time I see this sort of confusion. Do we understand each other?"
"Fine. Let's go then to the plot's coherence..."
She shredded my story. There were lots of holes in the plot, things that didn't make sense, mistakes in dates, causes propagating back in time against all logic ... it was awful. In a way it had been easier to see the low-level spelling and grammar corrections filling the pages with red ink than to hear her destroy the whole thing. I could tell myself I just didn't have a good eye for detail, but my stories were creative and worth telling. She was right, though: it would take a lot of work to salvage such a thing.
"Now, I have an objection to the way you deal with Adam's change. He's a successful, if small-time, business owner. He's single, independent, arrogant and stubborn. You told your readers that much, and you've shown it quite clearly at the start of the story. So why does he suddenly, forgive the expression, fall at Rose's feet like a lovestruck teenager?"
Because that's what I wish happened to me, I wanted to say. That wasn't the right answer, though: it had to make sense within the story.
"Miss, just because you don't think it's likely doesn't mean it can't happen, right?"
"You are right. However, you must consider that if you introduce such unlikely things you will break the readers' suspension of disbelief. They will be yanked back into the realisation that this is a story someone wrote."
"Do you have an idea to fix it without changing the whole outcome of the story?"
"I do have a few suggestions: you need to make changes slower, they need to happen for reasons the reader can understand, and they need to be consistent with the characters' desires and drives. For instance, perhaps you could explain (or, even better, show) that Adam's arrogance is a façade, a way to hide his insecurity about women. That's why he's single, too. Maybe he's ashamed about his sex drive, or about the things which turn him on, which leads him to keep a distance from women. Do you understand?"
"Yes, but it seems rather difficult, Miss."
"You can always give up."
For the first time, I thought about it.
"I'd rather not, Miss."
"All right, then. Same time, same place, next week. Now wash this stuff up."
The next Friday started a lot better. I knew what she wanted me to do, so I handed in my work and went into her kitchen to make tea. She looked pleased she didn't have to tell me, and I felt pleased that she noticed I was learning.
As I brought our teas, I saw her reading, red marker in hand. I sat down and let her work.
"Eric, I thought we had agreed last week that you would not confuse boys with girls anymore."
Damn! I must have done it again. I had been quite careful going over the text, but it was difficult to notice such small things, and when you read your own work you have a harder time noticing mistakes since you already know what you meant.
"Eric, I am talking to you."
"Sorry, Miss. I must have slipped. I'll do better next time."
"That wasn't our agreement, though, was it?"
"No, Miss, it wasn't."
"Very well. I'll think of something. I see you have adopted most of my suggestions about Adam. It's now a lot more believable that he could be transformed, small step by small step, into Rose's devoted lover. I still find some things hard to believe, though. Adam is rather shy and self-conscious under all that bluster. Do you think it's likely he would so quickly obey Rose in public, carrying her shoes in his hands for her? In front of his employees?"
In this case I thought I could justify my decision. I had, as it turned out, some substantial resemblance to the character I had been trying to write, and I knew what I would do in his place.
"This time I think it's perfectly believable, Miss. Adam wants to do it deep down, and he knows Rose isn't too bothered if he does or not. She's not half as interested in him as he is in her, so she's in what he sees as a position of power. He would find publicly obeying his secretary quite shameful, especially in front of people they both know, as you say, but I think he'd do it."
"Right, that shows some thinking on your part. Good boy. You see how it's done? Little steps, proper justifications. You've convinced me. I think you are probably correct that Adam would act as you said, and it's certainly not impossible to believe. I suppose as an older woman I'm used to a slower pace for most things."
"Oh, I still find you full of life, Miss."
"Very endearing, Eric, but we both know it's been a long time since anyone could in fairness call me lively."
We talked a little, somehow more relaxed than we had ever been. She kept pointing out slight problems with the plot, flaws in the motivations of the characters, and she started suggesting what she called missed opportunities: bits of text which could be made more fluent by removing or adding a few words; actions the characters could take to show what was in their mind a little better, or to improve the erotic appeal of the story; changes in dialogue to make it sound better and give people more distinct voices; that sort of thing. It was wonderful. I felt I was learning a lot, and now that the vast majority of the little annoyances had been dealt with Miss Harris seemed to actually be enjoying herself.
Eventually it grew late, though, and it became time to say good-bye. I felt an urge to invite Miss Harris to dinner, but it hardly seemed appropriate somehow. We were far from student and teacher, but at the same time we had been relating just that way since. I thought she would likely be offended if I tried. She handed my work back, now with a lot less red on it.
"Alright, Eric. Now be a dear and wash up for me. It's growing late, and I have other commitments."
I took the cups and things to the kitchen and washed up, as usual. I kept thinking of eating out with Miss Harris, which was ridiculous: she was at least 35 years older than me, and she treated me still like a none too bright schoolboy in need of extra help. Somehow she felt comfortable discussing the sexual content of my stories, which was more than I could say myself.
I went back to Miss Harris' dining room, where she sat still, and bid her good-bye, when she stopped me.
"Well, Eric, we must do something about that he/she confusion, mustn't we?"
"Yes, Miss." Much of my joy dissolved.
"I think you need an incentive of sorts. That's what people would probably call it these days, but I was brought up with more clarity than there usually is now, so I'll just call it a punishment."
"You are going to punish me, Miss?"
"Yes, Eric, and I wish you stopped making me repeat myself."
"What are you planning to do?"
"Nothing drastic. Come close."
I stood by her side as she sat, and she took out a ruler. She'd never done anything like that when we were children, but what child would have dared to disobey her?
"Extend your right hand towards me, palm downwards. Be a good boy."
I wanted to protest but it had all happened too quickly, and the habit of obeying her, which had only been reinforced as we got acquainted again, made it impossible to do anything else. I was trying to look for the words to stop this from happening when I realised my hand had adopted the position, almost without any conscious action on my part.
"Miss--", I managed to mutter.
"Now let's not pretend. You're not a child, I'm not your teacher, and no-one's abusing anyone. You can take this. Any adult would just shrug it off, so stop fidgeting. I'm using a time tested method to help you learn to pay more attention to detail. You should be grateful. Now a punishment is useless if the subject doesn't know why it's taking place. It's also less useful if the subject is resentful. So you're going to ask me to punish you and explain what we're doing."
I was blushing with embarrassment and shame. Things were going too far, and I wasn't sure I could make them stop. They had their own momentum now and I was all too susceptible to this sort of thing.
"I constantly make mistakes in my writing. Particularly I often confuse he and she. Will you please punish me so that I learn to become more careful about it?" The words came out of my mouth one by one, slow and trembling. I didn't myself know if I was going to say them until I had already done so.
"Why of course, my child. That's what I'm here for." She smiled.
Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! I felt her beat the backs of my hands with the ruler, and it hurt quite a bit. Perhaps even worse than the pain was being made to stand there, hand stretched, a grown man being punished like a small child. I felt so ashamed I couldn't even look at Miss Harris, and I promised myself I would be a lot more careful in the future. After about a dozen strikes, she put the ruler away and held my hand. I tried to pull away but she held on.
"Don't be silly. Let me see your hand properly. Come closer if you must."
"Well, it seems to be in good order. Hopefully that has driven the point across. What do you have to say?"
"What do you mean?"
"What do you say when your teacher does you a favour, Eric? You knew that much as a child, I'm sure."
"Miss, I don't--"
"What do you say?"
"Thank you, Miss."
"Thank you for punishing me, Miss."
"Better. Now run along and play. Be here next week."
For the whole week I worked on the story. There wasn't much wrong with it anymore, but there were plenty of options to make it even better, and I wanted Miss Harris to be pleased. I didn't know what to think about the punishment, so I just didn't. I was extremely careful about the gender of my pronouns, and hopefully that would be enough to avoid that unpleasantness in the future.
Moved by an odd instinct, I thought it was time to bring Miss Harris a gift. She had been helping me a lot, using up her time dealing with my mistakes instead of enjoying herself, now she was retired. I thought of an apple, but it hardly seemed adequate. There wasn't much point in pretending we still were in school. In the end I got her some flowers, and hoped she would like them.
"What have you brought me today, then?"
I gave her my last draft, and hopefully the version which would get posted. I thought it had been polished enough, even for her rather high standards, and being honest with myself the story was a lot better for it. I also gave her the flowers, and I could see she was pleasantly surprised.
"That is a touching gesture, Eric. Thank you for those flowers. I'll place them as you make my tea."
When I brought our cups of tea, Miss Harris frowned. She seemed to be on the edge of making some remark, but somehow uncertain whether to say it or not, so I asked her.
"What is it, Miss?"
"Well, Eric, this has been going on for a while now, but from the start I did tell you to make me some tea, didn't I?"