The story of my school life is summed up in the comment that was so often appended to my written submissions. The remark still haunts me. Not in the sense that it worries me or fills me with regret, but in the sense that I quite often use it about myself.
It only ever helped me once when I was at school:
We had a replacement teacher of English for about half a year. He was elderly and seemed a little frail, which didn’t do much for the willingness of his pupils to pay attention. Early in his short stay with us he set us an essay assignment, I can’t remember the topic. I liked essay writing, so, no problem, I bashed one out.
The background to this story is that I was a write-off at school as far as most of the staff were concerned, and I dealt with this by being the class joker. The previous week I’d been given the honour of a detention, by the deputy head of the school, as punishment for an essay – an insightful piece of comedic writing – because it “wasn’t serious enough”.
Enter Mr H. (I’ll call him that because sadly I can’t remember his name). When it came to the time for him to return our essays – tagged with his observations – he held up each in turn and called out the name of the writer. A hand would shoot up and he handed back the paper, sometimes with a remark. As my name starts with ‘W’ is was used to being the last in line, so by the time my turn came I probably wasn’t taking much notice.
My attention was caught as “Winbolt? Where is Winbolt?” drifted into my consciousness. My hand went up. “Come to the front please”, was Mr Hs response. I complied. As he placed one hand solemnly on my shoulder and looked down at me, I waited for the inevitable jibe or criticism.
“From now on”, he said, “you can do whatever you like in my lessons. You can even do the homework other teachers have set you. As far as I’m concerned, you can do whatever you want, as long as I get one piece of writing a week from you like this”. As he said it, he handed back my essay for emphasis.
He then added, “I have only given 9 out of 10 because I know that you can do better”.
Nowadays I remember Mr H with respect and affection. I didn’t know it at the time but I later found out later (during one of my frequent absences from school due to ‘illness’, that he was a regular contributor to a BBC radio programme that I happened to hear.
Today, I still know that I could do better. In fact, it works for me in an unexpected way. My happy meeting with Mr H. reframed the remark, and so I use it to counter the perfectionism that so often gets in the way of me finishing a piece of writing.
I know I could do better, but each to time I think it, I also have to judge whether 9 out of 10 is good enough for the job in hand. Usually, in my opinion, it is. If it isn’t, I’m more likely to heed encouragement, than I am a put-down.