My anger at the red pens in the world began rather early in life.
I guess it probably started when I would get my ‘Think and Do’ workbook back and there were giant check marks next to most of the multiple choice questions and then in junior high sometimes a big X through the paragraph that I loved the best, but when my younger friend Meg told me her story, I wanted to gather all the red pens out of desk drawers of my fellow teachers and have a big burn in celebration of not one teacher ever using them again. We would hold hands in a giant circle, singing Kum-bay-ya and celebrate that none of us would ever humiliate a fledging writer ever again. Maybe instead of a smelly plastic burn we could throw all of our pens in the middle of the circle and crush them like grapes into a pulpy mess of ink and plastic.
This is Meg’s story: We taught social studies on different teams at the ‘at risk’ middle school in our district. We worked on making our classrooms hands on and interactive. We loved creating simulations so the students would feel like they were living during the Middle Ages or traveling on the ‘silk road’ to China. I told her that my class, after we did the simulation of the day, discussed it and then I asked the students to write (an exit slip). I got some great feedback about what they understood and didn’t understand, so I said,
“Meg…try writing- after the simulation. I got some great stuff.”
She had an unusual retort…saying something snippy like- I’m sure they just loved that!
“Well, I sweetened the deal by telling them what I had written.”
Aghast, she retorted, “Well, I would never do that!!!”
“Why? I said. It really helps kids write, when they see that you can also struggle as a writer.”
Meg quietly said, “I stopped writing when I was a junior in High School.”
“What do you mean, you stopped writing….you had to write to get through college.”
“Not me, I hired friends to do my papers.” She went on to explain that in her honors English class she wrote an essay about her Grandpa. Her honors English teacher trashed the essay…red penned it all up. “I got it back, not knowing where to even start to repair it”. She went on to say that her grandpa had meant more to her than life and that he had passed away earlier in that very same year. It was a tribute piece to the life he had led and how much she loved and missed him.
Me… I was speechless in that moment. All I could think to say was, “I’m so sorry.”
Reflecting back on her sadness gives me pause, once again. My eyes fill with tears. One giant drip of red had crushed her spirit. I think…wow, I wonder if her brilliant teacher had ever read anything about writing workshop.