“You’ll never be a good writer.”
When I was in the eighth grade, I was sitting in my core class trying to come up with a speech for our graduation ceremony. Folks who wanted to submit their speeches were free to do so, and candidates would be voted on by the class. (Yay, democracy!)
Obviously, being the shy yet competitive bastard that I am, I wanted to do it. Public speaking scared the shit out of me (and still does), but I felt compelled to write about what leaving middle school and heading into high school meant for me. I’ll back up: Prior to the eighth grade, I didn’t give a rat’s ass about school. The early mornings, the awkward gym class locker room encounters, and being that one loser who always brought bagged lunch in my bulky Kirkland lunchbox — I was never a fan. But for the record, let me just say I NEVER ate smushed sandwiches or struggled with cold soup. And my saint of a mother always wrote me little love notes (you know you love that shit and if your mom didn’t do that for you she obviously hates your ass). But really, school was a secondary, even tertiary thread in my life as a preteen. I just…didn’t care. Maybe most kids that age don’t really give a fuck either, or are too cognitively undeveloped to think about that. I was too focused on my wolf drawings, being a badass at soccer, and eating the school lunch snacks my dad bought at Costco on Saturday nights. I was a very busy preteen, okay?
And yet, a flip was switched when I turned fourteen and ended up in Mr. Hansen’s core class. There was a sense of earnest effort and actual interest from Mr. Hansen, and that became very apparent in the way he taught core classes. It caught me off guard, really. Most of the time I would sit in class and check out people’s butts while simultaneously hiding my early developed breasts from leering eyes (yes, I remember each and every one of you douches). Perhaps it was Mr. Hansen’s ability to connect with young teens in a nuanced way, with funny videos, or utilizing pop culture to help us connect the dots. Also, I can’t help but look back and think how fucking amazing history class would be if “Hamilton” had come out around then. And yet. I was still hooked. I became engrossed in the Federalist Papers, and stunned by how much I could relate to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
So there I am, sitting in Mr. Hansen’s class on a May afternoon. He’s handing out edited and reviewedd copies of our speeches, to which I eagerly awaited to read his comments. His input mattered to me, as did his encouragement. I only got one. I looked at my speech, and bit my lip while glazing over the red. So. Much. Red. When he eventually circled back to me for a quick discussion, I asked him what was wrong with my syntax, and why this sentence sounded “irregular.” He loomed over me, and paused with the kind of look on his face like that friend you’ve had a crush on forever lets you down easy, but makes it clear you will never, ever be together. I could tell he was searching for the right way to say it, but there’s really no right way to say the wrong thing.
“You will never be a good writer.”
Mr. Hansen told me that, because English was not my first language, my ability to write eloquently would be difficult, and as a result, I probably wouldn’t be very good at it, ever. That was just the hand I was dealt, and that was it. He walked away and tended to next student.
Sometimes I think the worst part about this entire conversation is that I didn’t say anything. I should’ve lost my shit on him. Slapped the glasses off his face. Or called for his resignation (I’m just kidding you nerds). But the worst part is not that I didn’t argue with him. It’s that I believed him.
You can chalk some of my naivety and insecurity up to being a first-generation Argentine female, sure. You can always try and blame yourself. And I did. For years after that incident, I wrote my words in a humbled manner, expecting they would never be read by anyone other than myself. And that the words I wrote in my journal were an artistic form of expression I would be able to share with my wrinkling, nostalgic self in fifty years. The countless English essays I wrote on Hemingway, Whitman, and Thoreau were filed away for my own personal collection. Maybe I figured I could become the Gertrude Stein of my generation, and edit scripts and speeches and personal essays for my friends and boyfriends and clients. I accepted I could love the written word, but never write myself.
Fast forward ten years. I’m sitting in my apartment in New York on a Friday afternoon. A number of my pieces have been published on VICE. I’ve written breaking news for major online publications. I write freelance copy for women’s health and LGBTQ organizations. I’ve interviewed Olympic rugby players, drag queens, and innovators making the world a better place for queer folks.
I have always been a writer. I have always been a good writer. Fuck it: I am a great writer. That is why I write. I write to remind myself, Mr. Hansen, and anyone else in my shoes or otherwise that what you do with your life is never, ever restricted by the hand you’ve been dealt — or what someone you look up to tells you.
How’s that for a pep talk?