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Shaun Wrinn

The Weezys and Wonders of Writing

I am going to be a teacher. An English teacher. In a high school. Eek.

Whenever someone asks me what I’m doing in school, I tell them that I’m

going to be a high school English teacher. I get one of two reactions: “Wow, you’re

going to be a good teacher!” or “Why in the name of all that is good would you do that?”

A few years ago, the thought of my becoming a teacher was not completely farfetched. It

was sitting in the back of my mind as a sort of backup plan. I always told people that I

would become a teacher after I made my millions and could afford to put a fountain soda

machine in my house (one of my completely random pipe dreams). At one point

however, I realized that the millions I wanted weren’t worth wasting years of my life as

… well whatever it is you do to make millions of dollars. I have some innate desire to

help people, some mad hope that I can actually make a difference in the world. My blind

optimism and oftentimes fantastical hopes lend themselves not to the rigors and standards

of math or science but to the wondrous events of literature.

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I was born a reader. Whenever I wasn’t playing baseball, I had a book in my

hand. This was in part thanks to the fact that while I was in first grade, my mother

became a fifth grade teacher in the same school. After school I would wait for my mom

to finish her work and I would do my homework or read. My mom’s school library

became my personal library. I would pick and choose books at random or by

recommendation and have them finished within the week. This became the routine until

sixth or seventh grade when the actual academics of school became secondary for me. I

was too busy hanging out with friends or playing sports to really bother with the

formalities of school. I was still a good student but the time and effort was simply not

worth it to me.

I graduated from middle school and decided to attend Notre Dame Catholic

School in Fairfield, CT. ND was about a fifteen minute drive from my home and had

students from all over the state. Upon entering I was placed in the High Honors classes, a

set of classes that included Latin, Spanish, and (eventually) physics and calculus. This

was the first time in my life I was truly challenged in school. I had what we high honors

kids called the triumvirate—a group of three teachers we would have for two years. The

triumvirate were widely known as the most difficult teachers in the school. The first two

years of high school were some of the most stressful times I have had in my educational

career but also some of the most enlightening.

The hardest of the triumvirate was undoubtedly Mr. Reidy. Doubling as the

Dean of Discipline, Mr. Reidy was the embodiment of Theodore Roosevelt’s decree of

“speak softly and carry a big stick.” An extremely soft-spoken, grandfatherly man, Mr.

Reidy would assign papers on the same day as tests, followed by a memorized speech, all

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with a gentle smile on his face. The thing that I did like about Mr. Reidy and his

curriculum however were his rhetoric papers. We were assigned papers based on ideas—

spatial arrangements, comparisons, etc. The topic was left completely up to the students

but we had to follow the assigned rubric. This is the first time I actually enjoyed writing.

It was not a question of needing to write this paper but rather wanting to write this paper.

I wrote liberally about music and sports, two of my greatest passions, and was given one

of the highest compliments when Mr. Reidy remarked on two of my papers to the entire

class. At the time of course, I shrugged off the compliment to ensure my cool factor was

still intact, but inside I was soaring. I had enjoyed writing those papers and was actually

being rewarded for doing it.

Despite the onerous amount of work, I really enjoyed high school. ND had

become not only a school for me but more like a second home. I played soccer and

lacrosse, had friends from all over the state, and grew to have a great relationship with

many of my teachers. One of those teachers (and member of the triumvirate) was Mrs.

Chilet. A raucous laughter seemed to follow her wherever she went. Whether it was her

resounding laughter or that of the student she had deemed her guinea pig for the day did

not matter—it was contagious. Mrs. Chilet quickly became my favorite teacher, the irony

being that she was my Spanish teacher. I was well known for my complete aversion and

seeming inability to learn the language. Despite this odd coupling, I grew to love going

to Spanish class (for the first and only time in my life) because there were many times I

was left in tears from laughing so hard. I took to going to Mrs. Chilet’s room while

waiting for soccer or lacrosse practice to begin. I wasn’t going for extra help or to score

brownie points but because I actually enjoyed spending time with her. During these

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times, I actually enjoyed school. I really feel like my work and my desire to do work was

stronger during the years in which I was challenged the most.

After successfully navigating the triumvirate, my junior and senior years

became a blur. I finished all my work, got good enough grades but don’t truly remember

anything I learned. The academics again took a backseat to my social life. My time in

calculus and physics was spent planning for the night’s activities or that weekend’s road

trip. Even my English classes were spent with only cursory attention. I did what I had to

do to get through the year and get to the things I really liked—friends, family, hockey

games (we won the state championship my senior year). While my fellow classmates

stressed to no end about their college applications and essays, I quietly sat in the corner

with a smile on my face—life was (and is) too good to worry that much. I ended up

writing my application essay on my experience during a service trip to Neon, Kentucky.

It took me all of an hour to write, correct, and print my essay. I was accepted to all six

schools I applied to and ultimately followed my family’s footsteps to the University of

Connecticut.

My parents, older brother, aunt, uncle, and cousin all came to the University of

Connecticut and it was a seemingly forgone conclusion I would come here. This is one

of the few stereotypes I had no problem fulfilling. Coming to UConn, I had all the

obvious problems that most freshmen experience: slight homesickness, the ongoing battle

between books and parties, issues with a roommate. For the most part, I almost never

skipped class and got good grades. What I soon realized about college is that there is a

lot more leniency than I had experienced before. I no longer had a single, all

encompassing textbook to read from. I was given—GASP!—choice. Short of Mr.

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Reidy’s rhetoric papers, every paper I had written had been more or less completely pre-

planned. Ideas were stock. Clichés trite. I cannot recall a single paper in which I came

up with a truly original idea during high school. College would soon challenge every

notion I have ever had of school.

My freshman English class was not only interesting but opened my eyes to the

other side of English class. For as far back as I could remember, every book I had read in

school had been a classic in all sense of the word. They had been awarded countless

literary awards, given critical acclaim, and almost all of them managed bore me. My

freshman English class was the first in which I read a book that would beg the constraints

of all my former classes. Reading the graphic novel V for Vendetta opened my eyes not

only to an entirely new genre of books but also allowed for a true discussion on not just

the plot of the novel but the intricacies of the characters. I began to view characters not

as simply characters but as living, breathing individuals brought to life by the words on

the page. Entire conversations were had about the truest being of V, the masked crusader

in the novel. I spent a week agonizing over a paper, ensuring that I articulated my ideas

about V just the way I wanted to. I quoted liberally from the novel and movie, and

culture in general, in order to fully expound upon my ideas. It was at this moment that I

realized writing a paper wasn’t just about the text I was reading but about the entirety of

culture. Music, movies, and television shows all had something to say about V if I only

looked closely enough to find it. I had realized that literature, more often than not,

cannot be read or understood in a vacuum—it’s speaks to much larger issues than the

plot. It had opened my eyes to not only a new way to read, but I new way to write.

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I’m not sure where or how I learned to write the way I do. I don’t remember a

single instance that said “AHA! I get it now!” Half the time, I feel like it is luck that my

papers turn out well. There are moments when I look up from writing and can barely

remember what I have just written. The words flow and everything just works; it’s at

these moments that writing is almost magical. Donald Murray put it best when he wrote,

“Writers seek what they do not expect to find. Writers are, like all artists, rationalizers of

accident” (Writing 1). Murray manages to capture the complete irrationality of writing in

his phrase “rationalizers of accident”. There isn’t an explanation for the chance of an

accident occurring, nor is there a true explanation for how writing works. Good writers

take whatever is thrown at them and somehow make sense of it. This feeling of surprise

is one that must be cultivated in young writers and students.

The surprise becomes an addiction for those who feel it. It draws writers back

again and again through the agony of drafting and awful phrasing, grammatical

corrections and poor metaphors. Surprise is the reason all novels are written and enjoyed.

If a book is predictable, it is boring. Donald Murray quotes Robert Frost saying, “No

surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader” (Writing 2). Writers must lose their

inhibitions and let the ideas flow—regardless of how worried they might be of what gets

written on the paper. A fear of failure is what keeps a lot of people from feeling the

surprise. Writers, young writers especially, are so worried about perfection in their

writing that they do not even risk the chance of writing for themselves. It becomes a

quest for perfection at every turn—an utter impossibility for even the greatest of writers.

It is the equivalent of expecting a hole-in-one on every swing of a golf club. It is both

irrational and no fun. Writing and golf are meant to be challenging. Without the

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challenge, those little moments—the revolutionary new phrase or the beautiful putt—are

no longer special; they become the mundane.

When I’m not in the zone, I write well because I like what I’m writing about. I

think that’s one of the most important parts of writing for me—the subject. If I enjoy

what I’m writing about, I can write for pages upon pages. If I don’t enjoy the subject, the

writing becomes very near painful for me; I complain loud and clear for whomever will

listen that “this is STUPID” (in a much more explicit way of course). There is a reason it

took me less then an hour to write my college essay; I loved my time in Neon. I would

not trade it for anything in the world. I can still remember the songs we listened to on the

fourteen hour ride down. I remember having to wait until the paint my friends and I had

covered each other in was dry so we could get into the van and head home. I can recall

the smell—that sickly, sweet combination of sweat and the morning dew—that coated

everything and everyone. It is those things that arrest our attention, that make us who we

are, that writers must be allowed to write about.

Most kids have enough of an aversion to reading and writing that we as teachers

can’t perpetuate the stereotypes and stigmas that students place on our literature. That’s

what it is: OUR literature. It doesn’t belong just to the author or the era in which it was

written. It must come alive for kids. Students must be able to see why they should be

spending their time reading and writing instead of going on Facebook for the fifteenth

time that day. This onus is placed solely on the shoulders of the teachers; not the

principals, districts, and government but the people that the students see every day. The

tangible person who stands at the front of the classroom and knows the kids by name and

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face, personality and interests is responsible to bring English class alive to these children

by almost any means necessary.

This is the charge that we must accept as English teachers. English is the last true

bastion of the self in most schools. The rules of chemistry and geometry govern their

respective classrooms with an iron fist—they cannot be changed, interpreted, or added to.

History has occurred and cannot be changed even if we attempt to read a revisionist

history of it. English is the place where students are asked not to bow to the facts of the

case but make their own. Given a pen and a piece of paper—anything is possible and

there is a beauty in that that must be cultivated.

Everything has become so structured and predictable in the classrooms of today:

read this book, write this paper, get that grade. While structure in a classroom is

necessary, life is not predictable. Predictability breeds boredom and boredom breeds

contempt. There isn’t a guide book for how to live life or how to write. It is a matter of

experience that teaches us how to both live and write. Students need to be allowed to

find their own voice in their writing and the only way to do this is through allowing them

to write. The amorphous term voice is one that is used often but very rarely truly

explained to a young writer or reader. Alfredo Celedon Lujan, when writing about voice,

defines it as the moment “a writer recognizes in her or his prose or poetry a style, tone,

personality, and rhythm that work” (Lujan 43). Students can grow to be comfortable with

their own writing and voice but only after a lot of writing.

This idea is not groundbreaking nor genius but the fact is students aren’t allowed

to write the way they want. Students don’t take risks in their writing because of the fear

of receiving the dreaded “F”. Not only are they afraid of being graded poorly but they

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are scared of being humiliated by saying something wrong in the eyes of the teacher.

There were so many times in high school that I refused to answer a question because I

was afraid of being looked at as dumb only to find out what I was going to say was

completely correct. I held myself in check out of fear of being told I was wrong. I

refused to voice opinions or answer questions and I’m going to be an English teacher! If

I, as a student, was wary to answer questions then how must students who feel no

connection to the subject feel?

This disconnect seems to lead to a lack of trust between students and teachers.

Teachers—for the most part—are viewed by students as disciplinarians. Even for me,

Mr. Reidy was viewed for a long time as the dean of students more than as my English

teacher. I spent my freshman year afraid to speak in class out of fear of him (for anyone

that’s met me, the idea of my not speaking is a difficult one to grasp). It wasn’t until

much later that I realized Mr. Reidy wasn’t the dean of discipline when he was in our

class—he was an English teacher, trying to get the best out of us.

The trust between student and teacher has been slowly deteriorating, and that

trust is necessary for students to really take any sort of a risk in their writing. The first

and only time I have ever written a piece of fiction was in Mr. Reidy’s class, and it was

because I had grown so comfortable with him. I wrote a piece called “The Potato from

Heaven”; a story about my great grandfather coming across on The Titanic and how a

small potato he had saved from Ireland saved his life. This was one of the pieces of

writing that he commented on to my whole class and I was especially ecstatic because I

had never really considered myself very creative.

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While I don’t consider myself creative, I have a knack for seeing connections in

literature and culture that many people don’t see. One of my all time favorites—in Mr.

Reidy’s class no less—was seeing a clear connection between a 50 Cent song and

Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”. This connection allowed me to write a wonderful

introduction but also allowed my wandering mind to focus full tilt on writing a paper. I

doubt anyone has ever written a paper on Shakespeare while listening to 50 Cent on

repeat. The majority of students will not find Shakespeare interesting (shocking, I know).

It is necessary to allow students to view literature through a lens that interests them.

Whether that lens is a movie, song, or even another book, whatever draws the student into

what they are supposed to read is necessary and should not only be allowed but

encouraged.

The comfort level with Mr. Reidy and my other teachers allowed me to find not

only my voice in writing but who I really was as a person. I had grown comfortable with

who I was and what I thought of myself. The relationships I cultivated with my teachers

in high school not only allowed me to work more freely and efficiently at the time but

still exist. Every time I return to ND, Mr. Reidy asks what I have been reading and how I

like it. Mrs. Chilet—who has since moved back to Colombia—returns occasionally and

asks the other teachers about me. These relationships are part of what I remember from

high school. They helped me through what had been the most difficult academic years of

my life but left me wanting more. I did not want to leave Mrs. Chilet’s class but I knew I

would be better prepared for the subsequent two years of Spanish I was forced to take. I

left not only with a much larger knowledge base but with a feeling that I was actually

capable of speaking and writing Spanish. I left Mr. Reidy’s class with the thought that I

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could actually write—not just write but write well. I had never known these feelings

before. And it never would have happened had I not had these singular relationships with

Mrs. Chilet and Mr. Reidy.

I had become completely comfortable and confident in myself because of those

relationships and my growing maturity—I had found me, I had found my voice. Using

that voice and letting my opinions be known only became a matter of who I wanted to

piss off and whether it was worth it or not. Lil’ Wayne raps in his song “Dr. Carter,”

“Confidence has no budget”. And he is right. With my newfound confidence, I became

much more unaware of the grades I was getting and was more willing to take a chance

like the 50 Cent piece I had written. During my junior year of college in an American

Literature course, I wrote a comparison between Batman from The Dark Knight and

Arthur Dimmesdale of The Scarlet Letter. Had I not been comfortable with my own

voice, I would never have been able to tackle something so unique. It is essential to

allow students to work to find their own voice. Whether that voice comes in the form of

poetry or prose, the journey is one that must be allowed to happen. It will not be easy

and it can be exhausting but the final product is worth the effort.

High school students, to say the least, are at a crossroads in life. Every

weekend is the most important of their lives. Every new girlfriend or boyfriend is the

one. Every paper is a waste of time and energy. Students are old enough to think very

intelligently but inexperienced enough to do some of the dumbest things in the world.

This ongoing battle between students’ life inexperience and their own superiority

complex makes the boundaries of a student-teacher relationship extremely perilous. This

is doubly important for an English teacher since there is an internal connection to writing

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that doesn’t happen with other subjects. Writing allows an outlet for many students who

previously may not have had one. Pent up teenage rage, angst, and love may all come

pouring out. Or nothing may come.

For those students that relish in this newfound emotional outlet, their writing

becomes a lens through which they can view the world—a safe haven from the pressures

of the outside world. Students begin to lose that fear, the thing that restricts the free

flowing thoughtful writing that we as teachers so prize from our students. The moment

students begin to write as if they have no fear, these writers are no longer writing for their

teachers or for a grade, but for themselves. Each new sentence and paragraph is another

revelation of a deeper layer they had not before experienced, a newer and more revelatory

me. This kind of writing becomes a prize within itself—a continuing journey toward not

just a perfect phrase but a more perfect understanding of who the writer is.

There is also the distinct possibility that students will be completely

uncomfortable and unwilling to talk or write about themselves in any way. If we are to

believe that all writing is autobiographical, then students’ writing will ultimately become

extremely personal and possibly life changing (All-67). While a lot of students may lead

so-called normal lives, the reality is that many students may be facing extremely difficult

circumstances in their home lives. Teachers can become privy to information that is

otherwise buried to the rest of the world. This realization and resulting responsibility

places an added onus on English teachers. This added onus is not one that can be taken

lightly or sarcastically but must be seen as an added charge to an already loaded schedule.

Teachers must have an inherent love of what they are teaching. Without this

love, they are simply in the wrong profession. However a love of literature is not enough

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of a reason to become an English teacher nor is abnormal adeptness at calculus enough of

a reason to become a math teacher. There needs to be something more in a teacher that

forces them to strive day after day to get through to a child no matter the circumstances.

Every teacher must have a need, not a desire or a want, but a need to get through to their

students. Without this need, teachers become nothing more than a textbook on feet—a

seemingly uncaring, unflinching encyclopedia. Teachers have to make an effort to

understand their students, their backgrounds, and their interests. Without this knowledge

teaching becomes an ever-steepening uphill battle. Students begin to associate the

teacher with those authors that seem so distant to them. Teachers begin to be seen as an

opposition to the students. Students and teacher stand on opposite sides of a battlefield

littered with desks, boards, and papers. In high school, one of my math teachers had a

terrible habit of refusing to acknowledge if he had made a mistake. It wasn’t a question

of making a mistake but of being wrong; there was no distinction between the two for

him. Within the first two months, he had lost our class. We would not work hard for a

man who refused to listen to us as we argued our case. Had he simply admitted that he

was mistaken, I am sure I would have been more open to listening to him or doing the

homework or even just trying harder. But he didn’t, and I didn’t respect him for it.

Young writers are taught to write for an audience. As teachers, we are forced to

teach to an audience. We have to be knowledgeable of what students’ basic thoughts,

interests, and disinterests are. Armed with this most basic of knowledge, teachers must

tailor their lesson plans in order to reach their students more efficiently. Without any

change or understanding from the teacher, students are left floundering in the mire of

trying to relate to people they have damn near nothing in common with. We are not a

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society of clones—we are multicultural, diverse, and cannot possibly be asked to learn in

the same way.

I was recently given the opportunity to work with two students from a nearby

high school. We corresponded via e-mail on the books that their respective classes were

reading: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. The

students would be given time during school to write and then e-mail those writings to me

for feedback. My students, two sophomore aged girls, provided me with an extremely

interesting take on English class that I had not expected to get from this opportunity.

Both of my students are recent immigrants to the United States; one is from

Korea and the other from Venezuela. When they first contacted me, both claimed that

English wasn’t their favorite class for two reasons: reading and writing. The language

barrier was one that provided a true test for these students. While they both speak

English well, the actual logistics of the language was a difficult problem for both.

Sentences would come out awkward, commas were overused (to be fair, I still overuse

commas), and most of the papers began as a disaster. Into the Wild began as a burden for

each of these students. They were uninterested and generally uninspired. As they read

however something changed—they began to care. They found Chris McCandless

egotistical and pretentious (my words, not theirs). As the relationship with Chris is

further and further explored, more and more began to bother my students—his

relationship with his family, his seeming lack of motivation in certain areas, but

especially his waste of resources.

McCandless attended and graduated college and then essentially dropped off

the map. He gave away his life savings, stopped talking to his family and began to

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wander the country in an attempt to find himself. The girls were seemingly furious at

McCandless for doing this. I was completely shocked that they were that angry about it

—I couldn’t understand it so I asked them about it. Both went on to tell me that if they

attend college, both would be the first in their families to do so. The seemingly unending

potential that McCandless decides not to explore had sent the girls into a fury. They were

shown someone who had everything but left it all behind to camp in the wilderness of

Alaska. As daughters of immigrants, they both spoke of how hard their parents worked

to get to the United States and get a better life for their families. The experience was eye-

opening in that I had never even thought to look at the book through the eyes of students

like these two girls. They had grown attached to a book not out of interest of it but of

disinterest in it. Chris had become the ultimate villain for these girls and it drew the best

out of them. Their papers were well researched, well thought out, and dripping with ire.

The girls had found common ground in something that they originally thought

they had no way to identify with. Students have to be shown that literature isn’t written

entirely by dead, white men in a language that looks like English but comes out as

anything but. It is a floating, dancing being, dying to get free of its pages and fly through

the heads of those who read it. It is written by African Americans and Latinos, Native

Americans and Indians. It is read by homosexuals and heterosexuals, those questioning

themselves and those in committed relationships. It is in the music we listen to and the

movies we watch. Students have to be exposed to this side of writing; this side that

allows for the magical feeling to happen inside them. Allow them to experiment and try

new things that they’ve never done before. Throw out the five paragraph essay and let

them run wild. Let them write poetry and verse, short stories and stream of

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consciousness. Show them the metaphors, similes, and irony in Bob Dylan lyrics, the

genius of Kanye West’s “Jesus Walks,” and the poetry in the Counting Crows “Mrs.

Potter’s Lullaby”. If the students see the success and joy that can be attained by writing,

they will be much more receptive to the idea of doing it.

Knocking down that first barrier, that complete and utter disdain most kids

have toward literature, is one of the most difficult parts of teaching writing. The wall

cannot be knocked clean down in one fell swoop—it must be chipped away at, bought

and bartered with. A continual journey, from grade to grade, teacher to teacher, until the

moment when the student is no longer an observer of the destruction but an active

participant—swinging for the fences—eager to knock down the last vestiges of the

crumbling wall.

References

The Counting Crows. “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby.” This Desert Life. Geffein, 1999

Hawthorne, Nathaniel. “The Scarlet Letter.” The Norton Anthology of American


Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. 7th Ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2007. 1352-493.

Krakauer, Jon. Into The Wild. New York: Anchor Books, 1997

Lil Wayne. “Dr. Carter.” Tha Carter III. Cash Money Records, 2008.

Lujan, Alfredo C.. "The Salem Witch Trials: Voice(s)." What is "College Level" Writing?.
Ed. Patrick Sullivan & Howard Tinberg. Urbana, Illinois: National Council of
Teachers of English, 2006. Print.

Murray, Donald. "Writing and Teaching for Surprise." College English, 4601-1984 1-7.
30 Mar 2009 http://links.jstor.org/

Murray, Donald. "All Writing Is Autobiography." College Composition and


Communication 4202-1991 66-74. 30 Mar 2009 http://links.jstor.org/

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Nolan, Christopher. “The Dark Knight.” Perf. Christian Bale, Heath Ledger. Warner
Bros., 2008.

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. Penguin twentieth-century classics. New York, N.Y.,
U.S.A.: Penguin Books, 1994

West, Kanye. “Jesus Walks.” The College Dropout. Roc-a-Fella Records, 2004.

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