I think about my English classes almost every day when I sit down to write, and even some days when I don’t. I think about how much I hated them, how I dreaded each pointless class and similarly meaningless assignment, and then I think about the eternal debt of gratitude I owe those three teachers for seeing me through.
You see, by most metrics my behavior exemplified that of a great student: I turned my homework in early, earned excellent grades, and excelled in every possible way. However, that clever facade disguised a terrible pupil: I rarely paid attention in class, never willingly participated, and did the minimum amount of work for an A on my report card. I only put any meaningful amount of effort into the year’s first essay, which I wrote about Steve Jobs shortly after his passing; after that, I phoned everything else in. Nevertheless — as previously stated — I excelled in every way, relying on innate ability to carry me through the drudgery of English class rather than any semblance of hard work.
By far the exception, this behavior instead typified the rule: history, although enjoyable at different points throughout my high school career, invariably devolved into an exercise in staying awake; I stopped trying after a few weeks in literature. Although to a slightly lesser degree, German, Latin, Spanish, and Chinese all fell into a similar category in that while I could comprehend the importance of each, I still considered this discipline a tedious one.
Then, two years after my last real English class, the proverbial bus hit me as I raked leaves and caught up on Systematic’s back catalog. On the topic of learning to play the guitar, Dave Caolo made a revelatory remark during episode fifteen, around minute 30:43: “You can’t break the rules until you fully understand them.” All throughout my academic life I had approached every subject wanting to skip ahead and discard all the rules without taking any time to understand them. In English class this approach manifested itself in an unwillingness to spend time writing essays defining words and an aversion to diagramming sentences, and a desire to instead focus on writing the sprawling long-form articles I so admired. It took two years and a little help from Dave to realize that spending an entire essay defining a single word — mine was, ironically, “determination” at the time — taught me to value the significant nuances of one word over another, and diagramming sentences gave me a firm grasp of the mechanics driving the English language. More than a pointless exercise, introspective essays taught expository writing, and devoting an entire paper to my thoughts on the class provided a great avenue for exploring diplomatically critical essays as I tried to inoffensively convey my disdain for the vast majority of my teacher’s lessons. Our study of poetry, only rivaled in my unbridled hatred by sentence diagramming, still managed to teach me a great deal about rhythm and flow. More importantly though, studying, memorizing, and ultimately writing poetry put the craft into good writing by revealing it as more than simply depositing one’s thoughts onto a screen, but an art form I could actually respect.
And that’s to say nothing of the language classes of my youth1, German, Latin, Spanish, and Chinese. With the exception of Chinese which I still study today, I spent between one and two years learning each. Along with the universal benefits coming from exposure to another culture through its language — the primary upside of familiarizing myself with German, Spanish, and Chinese — acquainting myself with Latin has served me incredibly well as a writer: not only do many English words find their roots in Latin, its function as the building blocks atop of which many Western languages built themselves upon has made it an indispensable tool in my writer’s tool belt.
Although I could not see it at the time, these classes — these experiences — contributed significantly to making me the person I am today; specifically, to shaping me into the writer I am so happy to have grown in to. I still have a great deal of room for improvement, but without those hours in English class and without the years learning to say “Hello” over and over again, I would have much farther to go than I do today. Given the option to do it all over again, I would go right back to sitting in every one of those classes, albeit this time a bit more willingly.
↩ I say that at 19; ha.