In my first and last week of first grade, I learned what it meant to fall behind. We were no longer in reading and writing groups. Before recess one day, everyone in class was assigned to write their name ten times. With my usual care and diligence, I began to work. When it was time for recess, I was the only student who hadn’t finished. Doing a half-ass job just to be done on time had never occurred to me. In my six-year-old view of life, doing something meant doing it as best as I could, there were no other options.
Seeing my unfinished work, my teacher jumped to the worse conclusion. While the other kids went out for brief chance to play, she and her aide kept me inside for a lecture on how I needed to work harder. They assumed I had no finished because I had not tried, and when I told them I couldn’t work faster, the ignored this as if it must be a lie. As so often happens to student in schools, I was presumed to be lazy, dishonest, and driven by the worst intentions.
At age six, all I understood from my teacher’s lecture was that I had done very badly on my assignment and should have been able to do much better. She and her aide even made me promise that I would finish all my future assignments on time, a promise that, as I told them and they wouldn’t believe, I didn’t think I could keep. Their intense disapproval and this need to make false promise upset me deeply, and made me doubt my own abilities in a way that I never had before. If they were so certain that only lazy people write as badly as I did, yet I knew I wasn’t lazy, I could only conclude something was wrong with me. It must be that I’m no good at writing. And since my deficiency had earned me such disapproval, I was ashamed of it.
My parents took me out of school that week, but my belief that I was a bad writer lasted for years after my last school day. I was afraid to write because I was sure I would fail. With most of what I did, I had no concept of failure, only of needing to improve or try again or take a different approach. Being out of school, with its flexibility and lack of external judgments, rarely involves failure. Someone out of school who doesn’t understand a math concept has no more failed than a baby who falls down while trying to walk, she simply hasn’t learned it yet.
As my family began homeschooling, writing was the only subject I wanted to avoid. Through my school lessons and failure had only been with penmanship, I also feared composition, it was all writing, and I had developed a mental block against anything under that name. My mother worried, she could see that all other aspects of homeschooling were going smoothly, but what about this one important life skill that I hated and feared. Believing that she had to keep me from falling behind, she tried making me do writing assignments. She didn’t give them to me often, for they were miserable ordeals for the both of us. But every few months or so she would start worrying that she wasn’t teaching her daughter to write, and would try giving me an assignment or a series of them. Sometimes she tried to find ways to make writing fun. She had me practice penmanship by writing favorite phrases in pretty colors. She asked me to write short stories twice, I never finished either one, and for a while she had me keep a journal.
None of it worked. Even the fun assignments were only fun for a few minutes, then the fun wore off and fear, frustration, and resentment took...