Fifteen years or so ago I taught my first English 1A class at Chaffey Community College. In that class was a young man by the name of Martin Lastrapes. Martin was nearly fresh out of high school, unsure of what he wanted to do in life, a quiet, soft-spoken, dark-eyed young man who said little in class but made up for it in his essays.
My job was to teach them the fundamentals of writing, so that my students would go on to express themselves successfully for the duration of their college years and perhaps beyond. But I also wanted them to become engaged in the writing, to understand it as a vehicle of self-expression at least, an artistic creation at best. So I assigned such topics as “Describe the last time you cried” and “What is the most frightening experience you’ve ever had?”
I had 36 students in that first class. That’s a lot of essays to grade on a Sunday afternoon. And back then, I was a pretty slow grader. It’s a grueling process, working one’s way through a stack of papers that represent, for the most part, a half-hearted effort to complete an assignment which is seen as merely another hoop to jump through in the circus performance of getting a college degree. Marking the myriad of errors was tedious, to say the least.
Early on in the semester I learned to put Martin’s essays on the bottom of the pile—so that I would have something to look forward to as I slogged through the rest of the batch. He wrote with a quirky, personable style that I really enjoyed, part comedic, part earnest sincerity that was simply endearing. And I don’t think he was really trying to accomplish this; it was coming from his own innate artistic expression. To encourage him, I wrote small comments in the margins of his paper: “This made me laugh!” and “Love the way you express this!” and finally “You could be a writer, Martin.” It was the same thing my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Walton, had told me, the one statement that sent me on my way to being the writer I am today.
The semester ended, and quiet Martin went on his way. Five years later I received an email from him. It said, in part:
There is an awfully good chance that you won’t remember me… I went into your class without much direction and you encouraged me to be a writer. Believe it or not, your encouragement was extremely influential. Nobody had ever isolated my writing as something worth exploring before you. Since then I graduated from Chaffey and recently got my B.A. in English. I’m going to start my journey toward a master’s in English Composition this Fall…. As far as writing goes, I worked as a fiction editor for the Pacific Review and I was invited to read one of my short stories at the Cal Poly Writers Conference in March of 2003. I write all of the time, and I cannot imagine a life without it.
All of this is preface to the announcement that Martin—my stellar student of fifteen years ago, that kid who sat quietly on one side of the classroom wondering where life would take him—has just published his first novel, Inside the Outside. “Proud of him” isn’t adequate to describe my feelings about this recent accomplishment. Martin has been teaching college for some years, but having read an advance copy of his new book, I can see that his future truly lies in written expression.
And of course, this is yet another reminder to me of what teachers must always remember: Even the most casual comment—whether positive or negative—can have a lasting effect on a student.