My kindergartener spent the majority of our ten-minute walk to school this morning excited about the fact that today was a Thursday, which meant today he had library class. Which meant he would get to go to the library and check out a book. Even in the early hours of the morning, he was debating which book he might choose (Flat Stanley or Geronimo Stilton or maybe something else entirely – He marveled at the possibilities.) And suddenly, there I was, reminded what it felt like to be that age, to have just learned to read entire books by oneself, and to discover the possibilities that are contained inside a library. I wondered for a brief moment, would he grow up to be like me? Would he want to be a writer? Then I had another thought: by the time he’s old enough, will that even be possible, or will schools have been decimated to the point where writing, maybe even the arts in general, cease to exist?
What brought this on for me was the news that Penn State (my undergraduate alma mater) is cutting its top-ranked MFA program. This particularly hit home for me because this feels like my school. Though I didn’t get my MFA here, my undergraduate degree was in English, with a creative writing emphasis, so I worked with the MFA faculty, and Penn State was the place where I first realized I could and would become a writer.
When you’re a writer, or I imagine in any artistic field, there will always be what feels like a million people telling you you can’t. Rejection becomes a way of life. Few and far between will be those people who tell you, you can. And most of those people in my life were teachers. There was the humanities teacher in fourth grade who assigned me to write stories every week and then told me mine were good. The ninth grade English teacher who pushed me to think harder about what stories meant. The twelfth grade English teacher who made me memorize Hamlet and (even--gasp) like Chaucer. At Penn State, there was the MFA student who taught the first real fiction writing class I ever took. He was brutally honest, to everyone, and so when he told me my stories showed promise, I took that to mean that I should keep writing. Then there was the professor who I’d go on to take several fiction writing workshops with and who would become my advisor for my undergraduate thesis (a short collection of stories). She was (and is, I’m sure) wise and kind and encouraging. She called me into her office and said things like “Jill, let’s talk about your work,” as if the stories I was writing were something worth talking about, as if my work was important. She tirelessly read my revisions, answered my questions and e-mails, and even said she was happy to write me recommendations for the 15 (yes, 15) MFA programs I applied for.
In writing this, maybe I’m making it sound like everything was easy, that people were always encouraging to me. But the truth is, I’m leaving out the vast majority, the people who told me can’t. The friends and family who told me that writing wasn’t a real/viable career. The 11th grade English teacher who told me I couldn’t write. The non-fiction professor who once told me my writing was “boring,”(and for that matter, so was my life.). The twelve MFA programs that said, no thanks. The countless agents and then editors who would go on to sometimes nicely (sometimes not so nicely) reject my work.
But amidst all of that, I’ve somehow always able to drown out the no’s with the words of the teachers who told me I could do it. In the five years between when I wrote my first novel and sold it, the one thing that often kept me pushing forward, despite the countless rejections, were the words of a professor I worked with in graduate school, who once told me she was positive my novel would be published. She believed, and thus, I had to, too.
I sometimes wonder where I would be without all those teachers who told me I can. What I would be doing now if that 4th grade teacher hadn’t asked me to write a story, if that MFA student hadn’t told me I showed promise, if that professor hadn’t called me into her office and talked about my writing as if it were important?
I feel a deep sadness at the thought of this being eradicated from Penn State, from the place I feel so deeply indebted to for my writing career. But even sadder, to me, is that this only caught my attention because it hits so close to home. Penn State is right now just one unfortunate example, in a sea of them lately. It feels like the new trend is to cut, cut, cut education, the arts especially. I’ve heard so much of it, that I’ve almost started to drown it out. It has become shockingly “normal.”
And so I wonder, if you start taking away those teachers who tell people like me that we can, what will we be left with in ten years? In twenty? Will there be anyone left “crazy” enough to write, or for that matter, play music, paint, take pictures, make movies? When my son is one day taking his own child to school, will he even know what a library is? I hope so.