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Not an Essay

[A special guest article by Kadir Nelson, originally published in the September/October 2008 issue of Horn Book Magazine.]

As a kid, I prided myself on being a good student. However, it wasn’t until my sophomore year in high school that I realized I wasn’t really being challenged in my classes, which were generally pretty basic. That year, I found myself in an advanced English course with a teacher who was a real stickler for quality. Until then, I’d skated easily through my English courses, and, not surprisingly, I never learned how to write with much skill. I didn’t know how I ended up in this advanced course: perhaps my counselor felt I had potential based on my older sister’s performance the previous year, or maybe I impressed my basic English teacher. Whatever the reason, I found myself confronted with an English teacher who would change my life.

The first assignment Ms. Visconti gave the class was to write an essay about something we’d read. No problem, I thought. I wrote my essay, and felt quite confident upon turning it in. The next day our essays were returned to us, and, sneaking peeks at grades written on the papers of my peers, I eagerly anticipated mine. To my chagrin, my paper was casually placed on my desk with only the words Not an essay written at the top. What?!? I was profoundly offended and embarrassed. I could have blown it off, or continued writing non-essays for the rest of the semester. But I enjoyed making good grades, and I certainly wanted one for this class. So I asked Ms. Visconti if she’d teach me how to write an essay, which she very kindly did. She thus prepared me for my college courses and, much later, my authorial debut, We Are the Ship.

Thank God for good teachers.

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