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What Does It Even Mean To Be A Writer?

What do you want to be when you grow up? As a kid, it’s always been that same damn question.

Well gosh, maybe if it weren’t for being pulled out of class all the time to determine what was “wrong” with me, perhaps I would have given a more genuine answer.

If you have or were suspected of having a learning disability, you probably know the deal. Our educational intervention system has not been built to fulfill everyone’s needs. It has either left you over-challenged, underwhelmed, and/or lacking the level of accommodations you needed.

And whether or not you are granted the support, the system can produce unintended consequences. Experiences that may result in feeling isolated or othered – perhaps prompting you to escape feeling this way.

You know you’re “different”. The school made it apparent. You probably don’t know why at the time, but the feeling is real.

And that very feeling carries through most of your adolescence.

Once masking became a day-to-day default, I was observant of any perplexed stares or awkward silence in response to my actions. Just like the specialist who sat beside me in the 4th grade to count the number of times I raised my hand or looked up to listen to the teacher, the perpetual anxiety of being watched and evaluated became embedded.

Because why was this situation happening to me? What was I doing that wasn’t like everyone else? Nobody would explain. Not to a child.

So, what do you do until your final day of sitting at a classroom desk? Well, if you were anything like me, you pushed yourself to blend in. Faking it ‘til you make it.

Shh. Don’t let others see the real you. Do you want to be taken out of class again?

I would act upon this belief – so much so that any consideration for extra academic support or testing ceased to exist. I pulled off making my struggles less visible.

I was a quietly observant kid. I was conscious of every sentence I prepared to speak and analyzed every tone and facial expression that resulted from my words. Because as far as I was conditioned to believe, rejection from adults or my peers meant I was doing something wrong.

So, what happened when I did something right?

Riding A High In High School

I didn’t have much ambition entering the doors of a school building thought to be modeled after a prison (True story).

Shut up. Fall in line. Middle school was embarrassing enough.

Clutching stacks of books and binders, I walked down unkept halls a short distance away from asbestos-filled walls. Trudging down the stairs, I made it to the classroom without a paper spill en route to destination.

There was a certain level of comfort surrounding English class. After a grueling hour of my brain repelling y=mx+b in the period prior, I had a moment to breathe. The stakes were lower should I find myself spaced out during lecture again.

The teacher was passing back our latest essay. It was a few months into the year, and I was on a roll with these book reports. I had finished this paper in the wee hours of the morning on the day it was due. My weeks were quite busy, after all. Especially with my extracurriculars of watching YouTube and playing Nintendo.

The essay landed on my desk, face-up. Attached was a rubric decorated with 4 out of 4s in just about every category. A smiley face sat at the top.

Another successful assignment. Another paper that debunked the danger of “waiting until the last minute” to do your homework. Even if I skimmed the chapter or read an online summary, my mind was a natural wordsmith.

On the inside, I was elated. For the very first time, there was a space within the school structure that gave me a sense of accomplishment. The feeling that I was doing something right.

For a year, at least.

Where Identity Met Conformity

Upon reaching my sophomore year of high school, my self-worth went on a rollercoaster ride spanning several years.

For the first time, I took the leap from college prep English to honors. Simple enough. The class was dominated by the usual clusters of students one would quickly identify: The popular kids. The overachievers. The extroverts who charm their way to success.

This teacher loved the extroverted, overachieving popular kids. He seemed like a decent person and meant well, but it was no big surprise that every teacher had their favorites. I was okay with that — I didn’t need to be perceived.

So, what happened when my essay was returned face-down on my desk?

I turned it over: A 75/100. Solid C. Average.

Now, how the hell did that happen?

My writing process didn’t change much from a year ago. In fact, I was trying harder. I actually made an effort to read the whole chapter, damn it!

At age 16, I would have been lying if I said I didn’t take it personally. When most of my life has revolved around school up to this point, it isn’t unreasonable to believe that my self-worth took a bit of a hit.

Think about it: Schools dictate how you will learn, often with rigid expectations of your performance. When you are doing well in the eyes of the administration, the belief is that you will continue to do so all the way to final exams. If scores begin to wane, you must be distracted or maybe just lazy. How uncharacteristic of you.

Whatever it is, the school thinks it’s your fault and yours alone. Fix it.

Ever since that fateful day in a subject I once made integral to my self-concept, I went on to regulate my presence for the next several years. Any glimmers of authenticity that dared show itself were only seen in moderation.

Of course, there were other factors beyond one silly little paper that tanked my spirit – but I was insistent on holding my ground.

Stay quiet. Stick to what’s acceptable and not too loud. Who do you think you are?

In Conclusion

It was one hell of a doozy, but I made it through high school.

On one of my final report cards that would conclude my turbulent run with secondary education, I was called a “talented writer”.

But at the time, it didn’t matter to me. My confidence went through the wringer. Time after time, I told myself not to get my hopes up. Or if I did, I should expect the same disappointment to occur all over again through the words of someone else.

Eventually, my attitude did lighten up and my mindset altered. Sure, it took completing a bachelor’s degree and a couple of years after to shed my more passive, restrictive writing approach (more on that later) — but I’ve since been coming to important realizations.

Any ability you find success with is not your identity. It can help you obtain resources and recognition – but it doesn’t define you or who you’re solely meant to be. The more I viewed being a writer as a perk to support my self-expression, the less restricted I felt.

And the critical feedback began not to hurt as much.

In the end, no teacher, paraprofessional, or specialist of any kind can do it all. Despite my experiences with faculty from elementary and high school, there's no point in holding a grudge against people who were simply trying to do their jobs as trained.

I’m still growing into myself.


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