It made me stop writing.
Worse, it made me loathe writing.
Obviously, something changed since then, since, well, I wrote this blog post. But, if you told the high school me that I'd be writing a regular blog post analysing movies, you'd get one of the most incredulous looks imaginable. Even the idea of something like Subject 13 would have been outside the realm of possibility.
The main problem I had with English class was that it was boring. Repetitive. It didn't matter what the material being covered was, the same or similar questions would be asked every time. The pace was, to me, glacial. Not helping matters, I was assigned the same book, Lord of the Flies, in three separate grades*. The poems assigned have all melted into a puddle of words; none stand out. Even Shakespeare got the rerun treatment; Macbeth in two separate grades. Same questions, too. If I had done the homework, I'd have recycled previous answers; if I cared.
Another issue, unique to me, was that writing was a chore. Not the creative part of the process, but the physical part of putting pen to paper. I thought faster than I could put the words down, which was incredibly frustrating. Part of the problem came from a gymnastics injury from grade 3; I tore a ligament in my writing hand, an injury that, at the time, wouldn't heal 100%. My hand still hurts to this day, making writing with pen and paper a painful chore. Another part of the problem, cursive writing. I could either write quickly or write neatly-ish. I adjusted my writing to take into account the speed; first drafts were also final drafts. Revision happened before pen met paper because a fix would require starting from square one.
Writing became a tedious chore. By grade 9, I knew I wasn't going to take courses in university that required multipage essays and was aiming for engineering. Math and science courses took priority over English class. The odd thing, though? I learned more about grammar in French class. I learned more about writing essays, especially the type of essay I'd write in university, in Geography. I learned more about rhythm and tone in Music. The lessons I learned in English were, first, to hate poetry, and second, to hate writing. Unlike the results in Christina H's column, I never learned to hate reading. I just learned that proper literature was dull with characters I didn't care about. Meanwhile, the books** I read had plot, interesting characters, and intricate settings.
Parent-teacher meetings happened, eventually getting my school counsellor involved. The core of the meetings were to find out why I was failing. At one point, I was asked what would happen if I went from Advanced*** English to General. Would my marks improve or get worse? My answer was, "Get worse." My reasoning: I was bored to tears in class; slowing the class more would turn boredom into torture. At one point, I had seriously considered just signing up for the make-up course in summer school and just not take English during the school year. At least summer school was faster.
Pacing was a problem. I read a book a week, if not more. English class, though, would spend weeks on just one book, then weeks on the Shakespeare play, then weeks on poetry. Even in semestered classes, the pace didn't improve. Weeks reading a book that I'd never willingly pick up, with a bare whisper of a plot, with characters that I didn't care about, answering questions that I answered in previous years, with handwriting that was completely ready for a career in engineering or medicine if I didn't take the time to write carefully. But, improving the pace might have lost other students who were slower readers. It's a balancing act, but the extreme ends both lose out.
The choice of novels never helped. The last assigned book I read fully was The Guns of Navarone. I read Guns in the first semester of grade 9. I made the deliberate choice to not read The Hobbit when it was assigned, preferring to go by my memory of reading it in previous years for fun. I didn't want to associate the book with the chore of English class. Other books, I either flipped through (All Quiet on the Western Front, To Kill a Mockingbird) or read the first few chapters and set it down to never touch again except in class (A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye). Some of the books I flipped through more in protest against having to take English yet again. Others, though, the characters annoyed me.
Shakespeare suffered as well under the slow pace. The combination of archaic language and reading a play instead of seeing or performing it raised unnecessary barriers. Then came the usual questions, the same ones as always. Left me wondering why I had to take four years of English when it felt like I was going through grade 8 each year.
Between the repetition, the chore of writing, the novels, the poetry, and the sheer boredom, I learned to hate writing. I hated writing so much that in university, not only was I in Engineering, where math and science was more important, I filled the mandatory Arts electives with language courses, seeing them as far more useful than anything that would have an essay required. The one course, in Geography, I took that was going to have a massive essay worth a good percentage of the mark turned out to be too large for the professor to assign the essay, turning it into a multiple choice mid-term. I wrote a grand total of two papers in university. One was my thesis to graduate from Computer Science. The other paper was for a pilot project to get engineering students to learn to write by having us read over a report on a fatal collapse to analyse, summarize, and suggest improvements; I received an A- on that. That paper gave a me nice ego boost, got me thinking, over time, about my writing skills.
Thing is, I never really stopped writing. What happened was that any writing that I did that wasn't related to English class got reassigned as hobby, as class work, as something that wasn't associated with English. So, all the character prep work I did for various role-playing games? Hobby work, not writing, since the goal was to build up a character. Assignments in other classes like Geography and Physics? Write-ups and analysis, focusing on the subject matter; the goal was the Geography or Physics, not the actual writing+.
Slowly, I'd try dipping my toe into creative writing. I had ideas that weren't being used in games and needed to come out somewhere. I wrote for myself, to see what I could do. Hesitant steps, just get the idea down and see what happens. The first break point came in 1995, after the English dub of /Sailor Moon/ hit the airwaves. I had watched the first season fully, taping it if I couldn't get home in time from work to see the episode. I was aware of the idea of fanfiction, with some posters to alt.fan.sailor-moon already writing. One weekend, I watched the week's worth of episodes followed by a rerun of The Frantics' CBC TV series Four on the Floor and an idea struck that insisted on being written. Yes, that does mean that "Sailor Canoehead" opened the floodgates of my writing career. The reaction on afs-m was unexpected; people enjoyed it. Suddenly, writing wasn't seen as being a tortured process that only the select do. I mean, if I could do it, then it's not exactly a Dark Art open only to The Chosen Ones.
I graduated high school in 1986. It took me nine years to realize that writing isn't a painful chore. Sure, the onset of word processing on computers helped greatly, letting me get words out almost as fast as I can think them and without the cramping from holding a pen. The lessons from English, where writing was dull and repetitive, robbed me of nine years of writing experience. I could have been writing far sooner, enjoying the process that I use today. I could be a far more confident writer.
Nine years lost, because English class made me loathe writing.
Update (09-JUL-2013): While researching something else, I discovered I misattributed the phrase, "I don't care what happens to these people," to Dorothy Sayers instead of Dorothy Jones Heydt. Apologies to all involved.
* Note the use of the term "grades" instead of "years". I failed grades 10 and 11, mainly through not doing homework, making both up through summer school.
** I read at the time and still read science fiction, fantasy (standard and urban), and mysteries.
*** In Ontario at the time (early 80s), classes were separated into three levels - Basic, for people having severe problems with a course; General, for the college-bound; and Advanced, for the university-bound.
**** Math humour. Lines are one-dimentional, connecting two points on a plane. The thickness of the line is irrelevant and a product of drawing the representation of the line. Polygons, for the record, are two dimensional.
+ The physical part of writing still existed, though. I kept with a "first draft is final draft" method where the first version gets a heavy revision in my head before being committed to paper.