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.
.... There is more of this story ...