The American Scholar, March 2015
Mrs. Bluitt was a retired middle school teacher. She was in her 60s, maybe her 70s (ancient, anyway, to the eyes of a 10-year-old), a proper black lady whose face was mapped by skeins of dark lines, her hair sculpted into perfect spheres of curl. At our school, she volunteered with the “gifted and talented” children, though the main gift we students had in common was that we came from educated families in a school where few kids did. Regardless, she made us believe that our talents extended beyond our upbringings, and each Thursday she pulled us out of our fifth-grade class and handed us spiral notebooks that she had bought for us and told us to write.
I liked to write, but I also liked to please my teachers, and they were generally more interested in how closely our diction comported with Warriner’s Grammar than in what we had to say. Mrs. Bluitt, however, had relinquished her red pen. She only wanted us to write. Her classroom was dark, I remember, one high window looking north, cinderblock walls inside and out, flickering fluorescent lights, and she had pushed the desks together so we could see each other. I wrote a chapter-book about a girl who heroically saves her best friend. I didn’t have a best friend. There was a landslide in the story, and also an out-of-control horse. The girls said “Help Me!” and “Save me!” a lot.
I wrote it over a weekend, and I was pleased. By the time Thursday rolled around, however, I knew it was junk. That’s what I told Mrs. Bluitt: “It’s junk.”
“Hannah dear,” she told me. “You have to forgive yourself.”
I could fix it later. There was time to make it better. The important thing, she explained, was to write it.
Mrs. Bluitt died in 1994, and I learned only then, reading her obituary, all the other things she had done in her life. But those two years she spent teaching us were, for me, every bit as important. Of all the classes I have taken, all the workshops, the edits, the pithy advice, this lesson has held: forgive yourself. Tame the red-pencil-wielding teacher in your head. Write past the fear of doing it wrong. Sometimes you don’t understand those illuminating moments in dark rooms, until they are behind you.