This is what I hear every time I sit down to write.
This is a brain dump of something that happened to me when I was 11 years old, and an exploration of the consequences. It centres around one teacher’s opinion and their refusal to help—something that to this day I do not understand.
I wrote it primarily for myself, as I find writing helps me make sense of things. It is a reminder to ‘be who you are’. It’s important to never give up on something when the person telling you to stop won’t tell you why they think you should stop, or give you any constructive way forward.
As a 10 year old, brought up as an only child, books were my lifeline. I loved to read and even more I loved to write. I loved anything “traditionally” creative really, but writing stirred a passion in me and as a child I wrote many short stories.
I was very fortunate to go to a junior school where this creative spark was encouraged. Sharing my aptitude for stories often put me in the spotlight, but I was just happy to be writing.
We had reading logs and I would sometimes fill two or three a term. Books such as the Famous Five, Nancy Drew and others like Watership Down. Anything I could get my hands on really. I often continued to read under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep.
At the end of year 6 we had “Key Stage 2″ tests which as well as providing ranking data for the schools, were a way to help our secondary schools decide which ability groups to put us in for our main subjects.
I remember my English test well, the teachers whispering and coming over to read my story. I felt proud and secure in my ability. My level 5 result only served to reaffirm that security.
At my secondary school interview I was told how much my teachers had sung my praises, and how they had big expectations of me. Naturally, I was to be placed in the top ability group. I was so excited, I couldn’t wait to start.
Starting secondary school was marred by my junior school bullies being there too, and a group of girls in my form joining in. As someone a bit solitary, I had almost expected this. I was holding on to hope that my English classes would be my one safe place and that I could escape into my imagination. I was reminded again by my form tutor (also my English teacher) that they had high expectations of me.
At first I thought my low grades were just me finding my feet, but it wasn’t long before my world came crashing down around my ears.
“Your reading logs…”
“You’re not reading books suitable for your age.”
Bear in mind, I was 11. Watership Down is perfectly acceptable for that age. I’d also been reading novelised versions of Buffy and Angel—clearly aimed at teens. I would have read anything I’d been told to though—the library was one of my favourite places at that point.
“So, what should I be reading?”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you that.”
Now, up until that point, I had always taken what a teacher said as gospel. In a panic about what to do I asked classmates what they were reading and it was by and large the same as me. I couldn’t understand it.
And then the story happened. We were supposed to write a two page story, set in the distant future. No brief other than that. I got the equivalent of a D and the comment:
“You have too much imagination. This should have been more realistic.”
Too much imagination.
I took my story to the teacher and asked what I could have done differently to achieve a better grade and what I had done wrong. Suffice to say she couldn’t tell me. She maintained the “unrealistic” angle. We don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, so I am still completely bemused by this. She went on to tell me about how my essays were “rubbish” and that clearly my previous school had been wrong.
Even though she could offer me all this criticism, she could not provide me with a single piece of advice to fix it. She left me in tears, telling me I was being silly.
Two weeks later I found myself moved down an ability group. My mum didn’t know what to do, she wasn’t getting anywhere with the teacher either and in the end it looked like I might find a different one more helpful.
Now, at the age of 11, I’m sure you can imagine the utter devastation I felt at having the one thing I loved taken away from me like that. It was also difficult not to believe the teacher, the adult, that we were supposed to trust.
The consequence? I stopped reading and writing. I didn’t know what to read, and afraid of doing it “wrong” it was easier to say I hadn’t read anything. I did the minimal amount of writing required for classes, I couldn’t do it for fun after that.
This lethargy suited me for two years. I couldn’t see a way to fix it and unfortunately I think the lethargy justified—in the teacher’s mind—that she had done the right thing.
I coasted in English until our year 9 Key Stage 3 tests. I didn’t read the book required, I just read some notes about it. Unsurprisingly I only managed a level 6. One level in 3 years. Thanks to a teacher who appeared to have a problem with my imagination not fitting in a box. This began to wake me up.
I went to my new teacher and asked her what on earth I could do to improve, only to be shocked to find out that in her mind I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I just needed to “do a bit more” and stop coasting.
It was like a fog had been lifted. I started writing again, trying to make up for lost time.
My reading issue wasn’t solved until sometime between years 10 & 11 (GCSE years) when I went to stay with a friend. Jealous of her book collection, she took me to a Borders and picked me three books. Great Expectations, Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
The “problem” was solved as soon as I started reading Great Expectations, I just couldn’t stop reading! Since then there has only ever been a matter of days between books, and no one has ever told me I’m reading the wrong thing.
For my GCSEs I got an A for English Literature, alongside some A*s for coursework. I didn’t carry English on at A-Level like I had originally wanted to as the damage had been done and even after the GCSE results, I no longer trusted myself with it.
I understand teachers who give you a kick to try and make you sort yourself out, but in this instance she refused to help or tell me what I was doing wrong. She single-handedly destroyed my young dream of being a writer and I still struggle with it.
I try and shake off the echo I hear every time I sit down to write , and I’m getting closer. I really want to improve on my writing and am working hard to be ok with the idea that I’m writing for me. When you’re writing for yourself there is no wrong. Imagination is your playground.
And for that…
“Too much imagination” is exactly the right amount.