On Third Chances
February 7th, 2011

There was much about my transition from public to private school at the start of eighth grade that challenged me.  Most of it was social and cultural in nature.  I joined the ranks of an eighth grade class with remarkably few girls, which cast a bright spotlight on my arrival.  I knew only  a few people and had to make new friends at an impossibly awkward age.  And perhaps most difficult, I saw dollar signs everywhere I went.  It is no secret that the demographics of the prep school set differ vastly from those of your local junior high, which took some getting used to.

Thankfully for me, though, the academics came easily.  With two exceptions I was free from worry about the academic rigors of my new environment and able to throw myself fully into the social adjustments.  One of those exceptions was algebraic story problems, which I eventually mastered.  The other, interestingly enough, was writing.

Mrs. Elliott knew me pretty well at the start of eighth grade.  The previous spring she tutored me in Latin to help prepare me for the two years of it I’d missed in the sixth and seventh grades.  She knew I was smart.  She knew I was hardworking.  She knew what I was capable of.

Sometime in the first semester of that year her curriculum called for us to write an essay.  More than a book report and less than a senior thesis, we were assigned our first “paper.”  She expected us to use a thesis statement, and the A-B-B paragraph structure she’d taught us.  Our topic: Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.  I wrote and submitted my paper without much concern.  English was one of my strengths and I had no performance anxiety.  So naturally I was filled with shock and dread when Mrs. Elliott returned our papers to us and mine bled red marks throughout and offered a comment at the end which read something along the lines of, “Gale, this is not an acceptable submission for this assignment.  Please see me to discuss your rewrite.”  She didn’t even offer a grade.

Quelle horreur! A punch in the gut, to be sure.

After class I walked, heavy with embarrassment, up to Mrs. Elliott’s desk.  She was firm, but also gentle.  We arranged a time to talk further, at which point she explained to me that my paper was so far off the mark she realized that I didn’t fully understand the assignment.  We discussed paragraph structure and topic sentences at length.  Then she dismissed me to lick my wounds and rewrite my paper.

She received my second submission with slightly more enthusiasm.  It, too, bled red, but less so than my first attempt.  I scanned through her edits and markups, scared to turn to the final page and read my letter grade.  Little did I know that the words awaiting me on that page would, on some level, change me forever.  The grade was a C+.  The comment that followed it was, “Want to try again?”

I didn’t realize at the time the magnitude of her comment.  I was burdened by my initial failure, and hardly buoyed by my C+ consolation prize.  An A student my entire life, I now walked through unfamiliar and unpleasant territory.  I knew that I would write a third paper because I had no intention of leaving well enough alone with a C.  What I didn’t know was that I would remember her words for the next 19 years, and that they would bolster me against all manner of failure in many arenas of my life.

Perhaps it will sound trite, and Mrs. Elliott would never be trite, but in offering me a third chance what she really said was, “Gale, I believe in you.  I believe you are capable of more.  I want to see what else you can do.”

Things could have turned out differently.  It would have been easy for her to fail my first paper and let me learn my lesson the hard way.  It would have been easy for her to take my C+ effort as evidence that I was getting back on track and be done with our little coaching exercise.  Had either of those things happened I think it might have shaken my confidence as “an English student” irreparably.  I might not have matriculated into sophomore English as a freshman.  I might not have journaled every day for the next eight years of my life.  And I might not be here today, blogging three times each week about my thoughts, and self-identifying (finally) for the first time in my life as a writer.

Although I haven’t thought consciously about it in those moments, I believe that Mrs. Elliott’s confidence has guided me through many hardships in my life.  The lesson I learned from her (in addition to the proper construction of a topic sentence) was that I don’t have to accept my first attempt.  If I try and fail that isn’t necessarily the end of it.  I can try again for better results.  And I can try again after that if I’m still not satisfied.  If I’m capable of more, I can work for more.

Since I started this blog a handful of people have complimented my writing and advised that I should consider writing a book.  A few book ideas sit neatly in a corner of my brain, waiting for the right time to be written.  When that time comes, if my words are to be published, I will owe a great debt to Mrs. Elliott.  Actually, I already do.

10 Responses to “On Third Chances”

  1. Lindsey Says:

    I love this, Gail. It reminds me of one of my favorite stories about my (bona fide genius) sister, Hilary. She got to college undaunted by anything less than an A. A well-known professor returned her first paper with the comment “you writing is a one star motel far from the center of town.”

  2. Gale Says:

    Lindsey – Wow, that’s brutal. I might have been able to handle such a criticism as a college freshman. But I’m glad Mrs. Elliott took a softer approach with me as an eighth grader.

  3. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Oh my God, I’m reading Lindsey’s comment and just cringing! Eek!

    Good for Mrs. Elliott and good for you–as someone who gives in pretty easily, I admire a spirit that perseveres.

  4. BigLittleWolf Says:

    Every “achiever’s” nightmare.

    Even the statement I believe you are capable of more is so loaded. Recognition of your ability along with the drag of not having (as yet) lived up to it – according to the one dishing out the opinion.

    Yet the third chance, as you say, allowed you to keep pushing. And offered a reminder that we can always improve.

    But it’s so much harder when you’ve already given great effort toward a goal, and have to rethink it and try again, and then again. Like Kitch, I admire the perseverance it takes to do so.

  5. Anne Says:

    I never tire of this story. To me, it’s a story about chances, but it’s also a story about what great teachers are made of. I could write a whole post of my own about Mrs. Elliott…with a different theme, but likewise important. She was/is a cool woman.

  6. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Oh, how I love this. We all start somewhere. It is so wonderful that there are individuals along the way who are willing to be honest with us, and believe in us.

    (PS- You are a terrific writer.)

  7. Gale Says:

    Anne – We were lucky to have a number of amazing teachers at our prep school. Having one Mrs. Elliott in our lives was a gift. Having a school-full of them was miraculous.

  8. Rebecca Hanover Says:

    I love this, because I know that as a kid/teenager/young adult, I was mortified by the idea of any school-related (or creative) project I did being less than perfect. Of course, I had no idea that true perfection is an illusion… and now, as a writer, I welcome criticism and feedback with open arms so that I can grow (otherwise, what’s the point)? Great writers aren’t born that way; they work at it. I’m so glad you started learning this at an early age.

  9. EverySixMinutes Says:

    Great story! We all need someone who believe in us and stand by us when we try and retry and retry — not just 3 times, but 300 times. After all, as Malcolm Gladwell puts it, “a person needs to invest 10,000 hours of concentrated and reflective practice to achieve mastery”.

    I know this is not the point of your story, but I wonder how well written was your first submission in terms of substance. Perhaps it was just as well written as your third attempt except for the A-B-B structure.

  10. Ten Dollar Thoughts » Blog Archive » Pausing to Reconsider Says:

    [...] and broadened my perspective to represent other views.  In the meantime I am thankful that GAP (a bit like Mrs. Elliott) reminded me that I am capable of more.  It seems that these are lessons we must learn more than [...]