You might not believe this to read my writing today, but I did not receive any education in writing until ninth grade.
I received spelling lessons, sure. And I received handwriting lessons. Everything else was withheld until I could hand write to “grade level.”
Which, since as an adult I still have handwriting that’s messier than that of most third-graders I’ve met, happened never.
I’ve mentioned before about my ninth grade teacher and how she saved my education, but I don’t remember if I ever fully explained the extent to which she saved my education.
Before 9th grade, my grammar knowledge was almost nonexistent. I knew that periods go at the end of sentences and that question marks indicate questions and that exclamation marks indicate an exclamation and that quotation marks go around stuff people said because I read voraciously. Beyond that, nothing. Aside from periods, I didn’t even know what the rest of them were called. Periods, I only knew because I got curious and looked up why people say, “period!” when they’re trying to emphasize something (for you non-North Americans out there, the equivalent is “full stop!” and has the same etymology). I was a ninth grader who would sometimes still spell cat with a K, who put commas in places that made no sense, and who didn’t even know that the colon-like thing with a comma instead of a period at the bottom was called a semicolon. I had no idea how to write an essay or a paragraph. I didn’t even know what an essay was, beyond “written thing longer than a paragraph.” You could’ve handed me a short story and called it an essay and I wouldn’t have known the difference.
My teachers knew I loved learning. They knew writing gave me a hard time and I hated it. So they came up with the bright idea to “motivate” me to learn how to handwrite by holding hostage the rest of my education in English. I also did calculus and read at university level, and this was used as “proof” of the “fact” that I could have written neatly if I wanted to, so obviously I must want to spend my days in boredom and pain and occasional physical restraint when it got too much and I refused to scribe further.
So while other kids learned paragraphs and sentence structure, I was sat at the back with handwriting sheets. Reams and reams of them. When my parents got the school to agree to not give me any more handwriting sheets, they instead gave me stuff to copy over and told all the teachers to mark me on handwriting. Same shit, different format. They still gave me the assignments everyone else got, but instead of being given writing, grammar, and composition exercises in class, I was given handwriting work. Instead of listening to the teacher teach on those subjects, I was told to practice more handwriting.
Because I read so much, I had a decent intuitive feel for grammar – I knew when stuff looked wrong versus when it looked right. But I didn’t understand why it looked wrong or right, just that it did. Thus, more obscure or advanced grammar rules (like when you use a semicolon or why you use parentheses) were beyond me. Intuition is no substitute for understanding and knowledge, but they pointed out that since I did okay on the assignments that were handed out, I needed to practice handwriting more than I needed to learn grammar, sentence structure, or composition.
It was getting to the point that my clumsy grammar was affecting my other subjects. In history, a third grade teacher doesn’t care if you splice a comma so long as you get your dates right. In eighth grade, they do. In science, a fourth grade teacher doesn’t care if your short answer doesn’t have proper paragraph format. In seventh, they do. So I was being docked points for not using grammar skills I’d never been taught in the first place.
When my ninth grade teacher arranged for me to type, she also arranged for me to actually get the same work and education as the other kids. Without her, I would not have had a hope in hell of passing my provincial exams in high school, and in turn, I would not have gained admittance to university. I would not know how to formulate an argument. I would not know how to write a paragraph, let alone the thesis I submitted last year. All because I can’t make pretty letters on paper.
Everything I have ever done with writing, I owe to her, and to her firm opposition to scholastic gatekeeping. And for that reason, I get angry when I see people – especially teachers – talk about how kids “can’t” learn Subject Y until they’ve passed Unrelated Milestone X. I I still haven’t passed my Unrelated Milestone, but I think I’m pretty damn good at my Subject Y. Without a teacher willing to look past the dogma of handwriting then spelling then grammar then sentence structure then composition, I would never have learned to write.
One final note: I also learned the rest of it out of order: I grasped sentence structure before spelling, and composition before I understood why grammar was necessary. Order of how stuff is typically taught is not always the order that it must be learned in. Some kids learn differently and need to grasp Milestone X+3 before they’ll get Milestone X, and teachers need to learn to deal with that.