The Imprint of Incompetence
All I could see was red. That’s what happened when my freshman college English professor Mrs. Nesselhof handed back an essay I and my classmates had been assigned to write. In that instant, when I saw all those red marks, I felt a “Scarlet I” had been imprinted on my chest and definitely in my mind. The “I” stood for INCOMPETENT! Now I had proof. I can’t write. The grade was irrelevant, probably a C or C-, but the message was not. So, so many red marks!
Fifty years later, I have not been able to erase the red stain from my memory. It has nestled itself in the recesses of my brain. To excavate it would mean major surgery, and I’m not sure I want to go that route. I just have to deal with it.
The Fragility of a Young Mind
I share this moment because we all need to be conscious of the fragility of young people’s minds. I am sure Mrs. Nesselhof was doing her best to let me know I could write better than I did. She had high standards and wanted me to perform at that level. But all those red marks did not propel me to the higher level she aspired for all her students. Instead they sent me straight into the halls of insecurity, a place from which I have struggled to escape for lo these many years.
Going back even farther, I have a vague recollection from high school. I was one of a few chosen seniors to prepare for the English Advanced Placement test. If I tested well, I could get placed in a more advanced English class in college. For some reason, as we prepped for the test, I was dropped from the group. I was never clearly informed as to why, but obviously my writing didn’t make the grade. My writing just wasn’t good enough.
A Way Around It
In an effort to succeed, I shifted my focus from English to foreign languages. I first chose French and later Russian. I figured I might be better able to communicate in a foreign language than in my own Mother tongue. It’s convoluted, I know. To communicate in another language you have so much to deal with—the mechanics of the language, the vocabulary, and the culture. What was I thinking? The mind is a curious thing. I could somehow handle all the red marks on those papers. After all, I was in the process of learning the language. I could forgive myself for my mistakes.
After I graduated from college, my initial goal was to become a translator. Using money my grandmother left me in her will, I studied French in Geneva, Switzerland, for a year and then French and Russian in Paris, France for the next year. During the summer in between I studied Russian with a group of American college students in what was at that time called the Soviet Union. After my two years abroad, I came home and enrolled in a Masters program in Russian Language and Literature. No longer wanting to be a translator, I set my sights on becoming a professor of Russian literature. Sounds impressive, but I graduated feeling I still had much more to learn in order to be fluent in Russian and to qualify as a professor.
After my first year in the Masters program, I got a job as a Russian analyst at the National Security Agency (NSA). It may sound cool that I secured a Top Secret clearance and was doing work using Russian, but NSA and I were not meant to be together. Alas, deciphering intercepted, always garbled, Russian telephonic messages was something I could not do day in and day out. The blinds in the office were always closed because it was believed a scruffy band of Russians might be hiding in a copse of trees not far from our building. Why? They might be targeting laser beams at our windows. With those beams they could intercept our conversations. By shutting the blinds, we could not only block their efforts but the sunshine from our daily life. Did anyone ever see those Russians? Not while I was there!
I had accepted the NSA job to help pay for my schooling. In my naiveté I must have thought using Russian in a job like that would help me cement my knowledge of the language. In hindsight I discovered it wasn’t the language I was so enamored with. It was the stories written by those 19th century authors like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol and the torrid relationships they described.
Returning to English
After two years of being sequestered in a windowless room, listening to conversations that showed no signs of espionage, I resigned. That’s when I ended up writing English again. My first stop was a non-profit organization, where I wrote four- to six paged single-spaced, typewritten letters to clients. In an effort to cut corners, the boss didn’t want staff making long-distance telephone calls. This was in the mid-1970s when each minute of a long-distance call cost money. My colleague and I had to resort to writing letters.
The job entailed helping people write grants to private foundations. Since grant applications can be complex, especially when describing ideas that may only be in their formative stage, my letters had to convey creative ways that would help clients make a convincing argument for their project’s need for financial support. This meant I had to write clearly and in an organized fashion. Mrs. Nesselhof never entered my mind. If I was going to keep that job, I had to write those letters and on an IBM Selectric typewriter no less.
My next move was with a higher education association—a move that led me to working in four professional associations during the next 15 years. Each job required me to write countless agendas, meeting minutes, letters, convention programs and even a published magazine article. The writing seemed so straightforward that I never questioned my ability to write. I analyzed, synthesized and summarized issues as well as other people’s writing.
One memorable moment was when one association president called me into his office regarding a letter I had written on his behalf. The intent of the letter was to counter another association president’s opinion on the issue of higher education accreditation. I thought he was going to criticize how I worded the letter. I was shocked to discover he wanted to compliment me on how diplomatically I conveyed his perspective. My fear of his criticism showed me just how stealthily Mrs. Nesselhof lived in my psyche.
If I Had Just Listened to My Mother
Writing this blog causes me to remember the several times my mother said I ought to write. When I was a child, she instilled the notion of writing thank you letters to anyone who gave me a gift. Each letter I wrote was always personal and conversational. I would take time to think about the gift, what it meant to me, how I was going to use it, and thank the giver for his/her thoughtfulness in giving this specific gift to me. She saw something in my thank you notes that was worth encouraging.
She, of course, was my mother and what do mothers know? Once I met Mrs. Nesselhof, I concluded my mother was just plain biased. Now, 50 years later, I wish I had heeded her encouragement. Here I am writing this blog and feeling vulnerable. I’ve gained confidence over the years, but the specter of Mrs. Nesselhof shows up periodically to nudge me to higher heights and also to question how competent I am. Someday I’ll tell her to “sit on a tack,” but until I do, I guess I’ll just keep writing.