In Honor of Teacher Appreciation Week

I’ve had many fantastic teachers over the years, if asked to name the most influential, I’d have to name my ninth grade English teacher.

Ms. Teare – the honor belongs to you.

She started me on the path to writing long-form fiction by assigning a short-story project which became my first full-length manuscript. A manuscript she not only read, but edited over the course of many months, on her own time, in hours no doubt stolen from far more interesting pursuits. (I’ve read that manuscript again, as an adult, and realize just how big a sacrifice she made on my behalf. It truly stinks. Ms. Teare – if you ever see this – please accept my sincere apologies for that horrible epic fantasy fail.)

But her influence extended far beyond those gracious hours. In fact, she taught me a lesson no other teacher has ever matched: she made me an exterminator.

She taught me to kill the be-s.

During the first week of Freshman English, she issued a ban on the verb “to be,” in any and every form. One “is,” or “was,” or “had been” would result in a one-third lowering of the final letter grade on the subject paper. Two occurrences? Two-thirds of a grade. And so on, and so on, and so on.

For my grade-conscious younger self, this rule created both a fascinating challenge and absolute panic. How could a person possibly write an essay without the verb “to be”? How would I keep my perfect record of English-language As?

Suddenly, I saw the B as a dangerous threat … in more ways than one.

And yet, with one deliberate exception (the solution to which became apparent the moment I saw my paper returned with the stinging ‘A-‘ emblazoned across the top) I wrote every paper that semester without the Forbidden Verb. In doing so, I learned many valuable lessons. Each sentence became a deliberate act. Each word required thought.

Even after the semester ended, I found myself seeking ways to avoid the hive. The verb “to be” – thought proper in certain contexts – never again became a “catchall” in my prose. The lesson remains with me to this day, and I have no doubt that it made me a stronger writer, then and now.

And so I kick off Teacher Appreciation Week* with thanks to Ms. Teare – and to all the other teachers who care enough (about me and about the other students entrusted to their care) to teach us to read, to write, and to excel. My heartfelt thanks to each and every one of you.

May 6-10 is official Teacher Appreciation Week in the United States. If you know a teacher, are a teacher, or just have a teacher you’d like to thank for a difficult job well done, please blog about it and let me know in the comments!