When You’re Fourteen and Somebody Tells You Charles Dickens Would Have Loved You, You’re Gonna Believe Them by Matt Burns
Mrs. Pitz, my ninth-grade language arts teacher, said that to me when she handed back the stack of papers I’d turned in the week before. I’d expected a D paired with some comments about how I hadn’t taken the assignment seriously and needed to stop screwing around in class. Instead she gave me an A and the strongest push I ever got to help me become a writer.
In middle school I slacked off, letting my grades sag into Cs, arguing with my mom that it was still passing so what’s the big deal. At home I was lonely and bored, and all I wanted to do at school was screw around with my friends. Classrooms were extensions of the bus, or the Little League dugout, or basements at sleepovers: places where nothing had to be serious and the only thing that mattered was making each other laugh, places where I was happy. We’d recall good farts like war stories, outline movies about the Quaker Oats man sawing holes through our bedroom ceiling and killing us in our sleep. Teachers despised me for good reason. It was hard to teach over me; I was an obstacle. They’d send me to the opposite side of the room for talking and laughing too much, and I’d strut across the tile floor like I’d just won the NCAA championship. Once I’d figured out the first two problems on a math worksheet, it was time to turn it over and draw a picture of our principal water-skiing nude. I was the kind of student I imagine all teachers know well: one who showed potential but just couldn’t bring himself to care.
The assignment from Mrs. Pitz was daunting: group up with two or three other students and write a serialized short story — at least five pages per person — inspired by the semester’s main reading assignment, Great Expectations. Had I read a page of Great Expectations? Come on. Had I read the Spark Notes? Come on. I’d skimmed the Spark Notes, vaguely had a sense of the general gist. My stomach sank. I figured as long as I hit the minimum page count, though, I’d at least deserve a 70, right?
But sitting there in the classroom while everyone formed their groups, an image struck me of a modern-day Pip — that was his name, right? Or Pep? Purp? — as an exchange student at our high school, waking up and getting ready for school with the help of a flock of animated birds while he sings a song about being British, and then he falls down the stairs. Violently crashes down the stairs and the birds all fly away and do not help him. Does that have anything to do with Great Expectations? Probably not, but it made me laugh, and I dove in writing it longhand in class, letting one strange scene flow into the next. When I looked up, Zach asked me if we were in a group and what he should write for the next part. But I already had the next part figured out in my head. I told him I’d just do it by myself.
“But it has to be, like, fifteen pages,” Zach said, like he was talking about building a staircase to Mars.
That weekend I didn’t care about anything but the story. All afternoon, typically the bleak expanse when I’d find myself bored and sad with the blinds closed in the basement, grimly staring at marathons of MTV reality shows, I wrote. I stayed up until 3 o’clock in the morning, glued to the desktop computer in the family room, chasing whatever idea seemed funny until I wound up with thirty pages. The sheer size of my ridiculous stunt was funny in itself. When my friends saw how big the stack of papers was at school on Monday, it felt like I was playing a prank on Mrs. Pitz. My whole story — “Great Exaggerations” — was mocking this novel Mrs. Pitz seemed to enjoy and respect. What I’d done was nuts, and I’d surely be punished for it.
She handed it back at the end of the week. “I think Charles Dickens would have liked what you wrote.”
What? Was she playing a joke on me now, teaching me some meta-lesson about not messing with her? But, no, there was the big red A next to my name. And what an insane compliment to give someone. I think this famous person I never met, who has been dead for over a hundred years, would have enjoyed your story that exists only to make fun of one of his most acclaimed novels. She could have said any dead famous person. Maybe Abe Lincoln and Marie Curie and Harriet Tubman would have all enjoyed my picture of our principal water-skiing nude. Who’s to say they wouldn’t like it? It’s impossible to know.
But what I knew for sure was that Mrs. Pitz liked my story, this insane, waste-of-time, screwing-around nonsense I’d written to entertain myself. I’d made an adult laugh, which was more of a challenge than making my friends laugh. My world changed: I didn’t have to whisper to friends while a teacher was talking and then take a note home to my mom saying I’d misbehaved. It was possible teachers might like my ideas if I put in the work to bring them to life.
Pursuing any creative project takes an irrational amount of self-motivation. No matter how old you are, you have to believe that the nights at the computer at 3 o’clock in the morning aren’t a waste of time. One supportive teacher giving one unprovable compliment assuming the taste of a man who’s been dead 135 years can change a kid’s life.
Mrs. Pitz told me that Charles Dickens would like my writing fourteen years ago. I still think about it. That assignment showed me that writing can be a way to have fun and laugh even when I’m alone. If I’m sad or lonely, I can write. Getting out a few pages always makes me feel better. That realization, and my experiences working on creative assignments in high school with supportive teachers, inspired parts of Smooth, my first YA novel, about acne and depression.
Without that early encouragement and validation, this book wouldn’t exist. My life would be worse had I never been shown it was possible to take my screwing-around seriously enough to turn it into something productive. The late nights writing are still as fun as they were when I was in ninth grade.
Thanks for getting me, Mrs. Pitz.