A few years ago. She was in the supermarket parking lot when I saw her. My old English teacher. I was enraptured.
“Enraptured” is one of those words writers often use because it contains three full syllables. And also because it’s not a word people use in everyday conversation.
You see, occasionally as a writer you find yourself going for big words that aren’t common words. There’s a sound reason for why you do this: so people will think you’re smart.
“Behemoth” is one of these big words—it means “big.” Another word is “shibboleth,” which is not a cuss word for agricultural fertilizer, but an actual word that means “common belief.”
So if you’re a new writer, and you’re trying to sound like a big shot, sometimes you consult your big bag o’ words and pull out some doozies. Although this is a waste of effort. Because a writer ought to just say what they mean.
At least, that’s what the woman in the parking lot taught me.
I was her adult student. And she was a beacon. A great tutor.
She taught writers there was no need for fancy words to describe beauty. In fact, this is one of the beautiful things about beauty itself. Beauty is simple. So simplicity is your best way to go.
Short words. Easy sentences. She taught that sparse elements were prettier than excess. In her opinion, the notion that writers must use complicated, flowery phrases was nothing but a big pile of shibboleth.
When I first started my community college career, I didn’t know many big words. I never considered myself to be particularly smart. I lack many educational qualifications. School was always hard for me. I believe I might have a mild form of dyslexia, but don’t quote me on taht.
All I know is that when you put me in a roomful of people at a cocktail party, I’m the guy hanging out in the kitchen, making friends with the catering staff. Because that is the side of life I come from.
I worked blue collar jobs. I even worked catering gigs. I come from people whose careers horsewhipped us into answering “Yessir” and “No, ma’am” to our superiors, even if our superiors were high-school sophomores with dental braces.
So I’ve never seen myself as a writer. In fact, I’ve never seen myself as an anything. I’m just a guy.
But the old teacher begged to differ. I was late 20s, trying to make something of myself, when she read my first real attempt at a short story. She handed it back and said, “This was really good.”
And she seemed to mean it.
I was so touched I bit my bottom lip. Because you don’t cry in front of your professor, this is a literary no-no. Melville did not cry before his professors. His Trig professor, maybe. Still, the idea that this woman thought I was unique was a behemoth thrill to me.
Then I looked at the paper she returned.
Across the top were big red letters: “Use simple words.”
She sent me home to rewrite my story on six separate occasions. Each time, simplifying it more.
The next several months were my education in sparseness. There were little things I learned to do.
I learned to eliminate wordy, aimless phrases like: “The man drove his ugly, sputtering, 1968 Oldsmobile Toronado eerily down the vacant, foreboding road toward the flaking, behemoth Victorian home.” And I learned to replace them with: “Oldsmobiles suck.”
But this wasn’t enough for the old teacher. Often my stories would be returned with more remarks like:
“No unnecessary sentences.”
“Make it shorter.”
“Delete 100 words.”
Over time I felt I had dumbed my writing down until I was writing in fragments. Sort of like. This. You’re reading. Here. But she insisted this wasn’t dumb writing.
So anyway, then I graduated from college. Life went on. I did a lot of non-exceptional jobs. I paid the bills. But somehow I managed to become a writer. Although I can’t figure this out.
And it was one summer day when leaving the supermarket that I saw her. This silver-haired woman, jogging across the parking lot, a dead ringer for Dorothy from the “Golden Girls.” Heading toward me.
I recognized her. A sweet woman who once told me I was somebody. When she approached, she didn’t ask how I was doing. She didn’t tell me how she was doing. Instead she blurted out: “My book club just started your novel.”
There I was. Biting my lip again. A stinging grew behind my eyes when we hugged. Because, if I’m being honest with myself, I’ll admit that most people didn’t expect much out of me.
But then, here’s the thing.
A few people did.
Sandi. - April 7, 2021 6:59 am
Sean, I’m very glad your old English teacher could foresee a novel in your future before you even wrote it!
Sharon Brock - April 7, 2021 7:11 am
Three of my sisters are retired teachers. One young man stopped my sister in WalMart to thank her for caring about him and believing in him. She taught him math. The young man became the first ever member of his family to graduate from high school, college, and graduate school. He started his own CPA firm. Teachers make a difference.
Kay - April 7, 2021 7:17 am
I had to bite my lip as well. Wonderful story!
Kay Williams - April 7, 2021 7:19 am
I had to bite my lip as well. Wonderful storyl
Neil Joiner - April 7, 2021 7:28 am
That fine teacher did the world a great favor by encouraging you. Thanks for all the stories.
Leigh Amiot - April 7, 2021 10:42 am
Mrs. Lee Pulliam
Mr. Kelly Dees
Two teachers who planted seeds which helped change the (big word alert) trajectory of my life. (Sentence fragments are cool.)
On ma’ams and sirs, in my family we were required to say that to all our elders, known or unknown. I still say it to this day for fear of hearing my mother inquire sternly from the great beyond, “What did you say?!” That was my second chance to add a ma’am or sir I had omitted. Believe me, a third chance was never needed!
Kim Obele - April 7, 2021 11:41 am
Simple is not easy, but it is good.
Al Cato - April 7, 2021 11:33 am
So glad she was persistent in encouraging you. Remember the saga of James Lee Burke so many years ago trying to get his first book published. He was rejected by publishers over 100 times. Finally, one took a chance. The book no one wanted won the Pulitzer Prize for year it was published . Now he and his writings are acclaimed.
You and your blogs and books are already acclaimed by so many of us. Continue to do what you do so well. Good writing and persistence lead to good things happening. Just read the comments of your followers.
Lander Bethel - April 7, 2021 11:35 am
Yeah, that’s the thing.
Susan Kennedy - April 7, 2021 11:42 am
This is beautiful!
Virginia Russell - April 7, 2021 11:45 am
What I loved about community college teaching: finding so many who had been overlooked and under-appreciated, and watching them flourish.
Beverley Phillips - April 7, 2021 11:47 am
That’s an enthralling story, Sean! It has good advice for all of us for writing, or speaking: simplify. And, I am thrilled to read one that doesn’t mention the pandemic!! Keep it coming!
Terric - April 7, 2021 12:05 pm
I got me some stinging behind the eyes with that one. Love you much Sean.
B J Holt - April 7, 2021 12:09 pm
Biting my lip. Love, a retired English teacher.
Liz Watkins - April 7, 2021 12:47 pm
GOOD MORNING! It’s a GREAT THING!
God’s Blessings 🙂🙂
Richard smith - April 7, 2021 12:48 pm
Lots of us have lysdexia, Sean. Nothing to be ashamed of.
Debbie Braswell - April 7, 2021 12:55 pm
And those, Sean, are the ones that really matter!
Dean - April 7, 2021 1:48 pm
So glad the teacher saw your potential. Look forward to your column everyday
Betty - April 7, 2021 1:55 pm
Thank you, Sean. I was an English teacher. High school seniors and community college. I believed in every one of them even when they didn’t believe in themselves. Someone had to.
Joyce Hooper - April 7, 2021 2:09 pm
Your teacher nailed it! I love your work! You are very good at what you do!
Saundra Meroney - April 7, 2021 3:31 pm
Inspirational! Definitely some stinging behind the eyes… even some tears when I bit my lip.
Thank you, Sean
AlaRedClayGirl - April 7, 2021 3:50 pm
It’s no small thing when you make a former teacher proud. Hurray for you! Hurray for us because we are the beneficiaries of your columns and books!
Belinda Crowell - April 7, 2021 4:02 pm
Sean, thankfully, your English teacher recognized talent when she read it!!!
Elizabeth Moore - April 7, 2021 4:22 pm
Thanks Sean, 3rd grade teacher here. I’ve been doing this a long time now and my first groups of students are finishing school, starting families, and finding me on Facebook! I can’t tell you how meaningful it is to hear from ‘my kids’ with a special memory or thoughts from their elementary years. Teaching, I think, like parenting, is a long game. Of course, there are victories along the way, but it’s kids that come back, notes sent years later, it’s those kind words that really keep us going! It’s a balance some times with sending back those papers for corrections and encouraging wildly. It’s always good to hear when you got that balance right. Keep up the good work- love reading your work each morning before I start my day (I don’t even get out a grading pen!). PS- I’m finishing up Where the Red Fern Grows with my class this week- I’ve got the tissues handy!
Saundra Meroney - April 7, 2021 4:28 pm
Inspirational! Definitely some stinging behind the eyes…even a few years when I bit my lip! Thank you, Sean
Anne Arthur - April 7, 2021 4:53 pm
People like your good teacher bring the best out of people. No wonder we have to bite our lips.
God sent her because he knew the talent he had gifted you with needed to lay bare. Happy she answered the call.
Bob Brenner - April 7, 2021 4:55 pm
Teka Pierce - April 7, 2021 5:22 pm
I really enjoyed this. Often an unkind word can derail a young mind. Encouragement can turn a persons life in a direction you didn’t know was even an opportunity. I’m now 75 years old. Lost my first husband when he was 30 an me 28 with 4 little children. Never worked outside of home. But one encouraging person gave me a job. I was not qualified. I had no reason to be hired. But she gave me a chance that changed my life. My life has had many turns but I promise to always be a victor not a victim! I have been married to a now retired Police chief. We have been together 43 years. Raised 4 college grad kids. They all have done very well. Very much has been expected of me mostly by myself.
Linda Moon - April 7, 2021 5:27 pm
The Good Teacher was right, so I’ll make my comment brief with no big words: I’m glad the teacher expected much of you. Two of your books are on my shelf. Thank you, Teacher, for expecting a lot out of your student who became a unique writer.
Helen De Prima - April 7, 2021 5:53 pm
A small affirmation yields huge motivation.
MaryPage Jones - April 7, 2021 5:59 pm
You just told my story.
christina - April 7, 2021 6:04 pm
Sometimes it takes just one person to sow the seed for the flower to bloom.
Linda Cooley - April 7, 2021 6:06 pm
Sitting next to my brilliant H.S. English teacher daughter, reading your column while we enjoy our 1st pedicure since COVID 19 (we live in Rebellious Georgia, but we let our good common sense guide.) She has incredible talent, teaches creative writing, and has 7 more years before retirement. I’m moved to tears & laughter in her writing, as I am with you! Biting my lips at this one today. Hug!
Debbie g - April 7, 2021 8:09 pm
“A teacher affects eternity. They can never tell where their influence stops “ A saying I always thought was true. Thank you Sean and teachers
Thomas Oberholtzer - April 7, 2021 9:18 pm
You are a VERY GIFTED WRITER!
Thanks for your “teacher update.” I have one a bit longer…7th Grade English, Hogg Jr. High, Tyler, Texas,
Mrs. Harold Stringer. She had half rimmed glasses and kept me after class most of that year to “Learn How To Diagram English Sentences” which I did. Then I promptly left them behind in the 8th Grade.
Flash Forward 15 years later, Portland Oregon…Western Seminary (Grad School). (A bit of background…I met this “woodworker” named Jesus on 10/28/1970 in Nacogdoches, Texas as a college student. My reason to be in seminary.) I was in my 3rd year of New Testament Greek and the Professor said, “We are going to Learn How To Diagram NT Greek!” BAM…I was now 12 years old again and having flashbacks of Hogg Jr. High and Mrs. Harold Stringer! Long story short, I did learn how to diagram N.T. Greek Grammar (to teach main points of NT) also, Hebrew, Aramaic some German and French! (All of this due to Mrs. Harold Stringer in the 7th grade.)
The REST OF THE STORY…I called my grandmother while I was in the NT Greek class and asked her if she knew
Mrs. Harold Stringer? She responded with Yes, Imogene is in my bridge club! I asked her to pass along my “Sincere Thanks” to her for teaching a “goofy” kid how to diagram English Sentences! (I was the only student in the Greek Class that even had an idea about How to Diagram Sentences!)
PS “Imogene was THRILLED!” Sean, thanks for the flashback to someone that saw something in me no one else did!
Bar - April 7, 2021 9:40 pm
Tears, but no lip biting. I am grateful for tears. For many years, after living through some hard times, I had forgotten how to cry — even my tears deserted me. Mid-life I met a loving man who uncovered the real me, tears and all, and now I am able to cry again. You bring ’em on almost daily. I love you for it.
Harriet - April 7, 2021 10:12 pm
Wow. That is the best compliment ever and n the whole world! Congratulations Sean
Bob E - April 8, 2021 12:16 am
In general, teachers ‘ROCK’.
Many are underpaid and under-appreciated yet continue to devote themselves selflessly for the betterment of their students.
God bless them and those they guide.
johnallenberry - April 8, 2021 2:13 am
Thank you for this. As a Creative Writing teacher m’self, this is nothing short of inspirational!
MAM - April 8, 2021 2:37 am
And I agree with Teka that a teacher can derail a person. My first college essay came back with a B+ and NO red marks and the comment that my grammar and spelling were 1000 percent better than the average freshman’s, but I had nothing to say. So, I didn’t try writing, other than ordinary stuff that one has to write, for 40 years, when I attempted a novel. Finished it, but never published it. But I’ve always been a grammar and spelling nerd, so the prof was partly right. Now I love editing AND writing. I’m so happy that your teacher recognized your talent and skill. Thank you, Sean, for your daily words of encouragement (that’s not a big word, is it?).
Kate. - April 8, 2021 1:14 pm
As a teacher I had high expectations for ALL of my students and they were ALL amazing. ALL struggled with life and circumstances at some point in their lives but they were still amazing. During my career, I taught thousands of students, some in high school, some in college, and sometimes I taught teachers. I will always be thankful I was able to see the good in all my students and to understand that each one was an amazing individual. And I learned more from them, then they probably learned from me.
Patricia Harris - April 8, 2021 3:53 pm
You are the best!! I love your stories.
Linda Holmes - April 8, 2021 4:19 pm
As a retired high school teacher and counselor, you gave me added hope that there are more former students that I advised who are doing well.
Patricia Gibson - April 9, 2021 1:44 pm
God bless teachers that care❤️❤️
Jacquelyn Wolfe - April 9, 2021 8:59 pm
I love your writing. i can just relate so much to it. It takes me somewhere I love to go. Memories!!! Thanks!
Cheryl Buchanan - April 11, 2021 11:22 pm
Good teachers just know!