87: A Student’s Student

87: A Student’s Student

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers

A Student’s Student

Every great achiever is inspired by a great mentor.

~Lailah Gifty Akita

I attended a small Catholic school in north Seattle, and as early as middle school I knew that I wanted to be a fiction writer when I grew up. Instead, I became a teacher, and seven years into my teaching career at a small Catholic school in West Seattle, I finally decided to give up my writing dream.

It didn’t mean I stopped writing altogether, but it meant giving up on my first novel, which I had barely started, unless writing the first chapter eighteen times counts for something. Then one spring, four years later, my seventh graders and I had the privilege of meeting bestselling author Jamie Ford. After hearing his advice about writing award-winning stories, I revisited my old dream.

I created a novel-writing project the following September when my seventh grade students became my eighth graders. Each week, during language-arts class, my students spent an hour writing stories and sharing their work in small groups. During that hour, I told them that I, their teacher, would be doing the same assignment. They were excited to have me working alongside them in solidarity.

Little did they know that during this hour, I ended up writing e-mails to parents and staff. I planned the next day’s lesson, graded papers, and shopped online — for academic products, of course.

Enter Kellen, an energetic eighth grader full of encouragement, which he employed to push himself and his classmates to be the best they could be. He loved sports, and as much as he was an athlete, he was also a coach.

During a story-writing period, he approached me with a question about his book and caught me doing teacher work. He called me out immediately.

“Hey! You’re not writing!” he exclaimed, both excited and disappointed he’d caught the teacher off task.

I admitted it and switched my screen back to my novel.

All was well until he caught me a second time during a different writing session. Again, I had no excuse. I went back to work, and this time I wrote wholeheartedly, truly working on my novel — the one that had been on the back burner for the last four years. Then it hit me — plot direction, a core theme and, most importantly, an idea for a second chapter. And a third. In fact, a blur of rising action came into focus, and I was rapidly imagining my story unfolding. I felt like I had just crossed that threshold when a book goes from an idea to a full vision that just needs to be written and modified instead of created from scratch.

What struck me even more in that moment, however, was the realization that I needed someone to push me to write. Why not Kellen?

I’ve had many voices in my life tell me to keep writing, but it became clear that I needed a new voice — someone other than my family and friends. I never thought that voice would come from a student of mine, but who better to own my accountability than someone for whom I’m supposed to be an example of studiousness and turning in work on time?

In my class, as in many others, each student has a job, whether it’s erasing the whiteboard, washing lunchroom tables, or putting up chairs at the end of the day. Thinking out loud right in front of Kellen, I said, “Maybe I should add a new class job where someone assigns me writing homework.”

“Can that be my job?” he requested with wide-eyed eagerness.

“I think you’d be the right person,” I said.

Thus, the “professor” job was born.

At first, my fourteen-year-old professor started me off at two pages a week. Then over Christmas break, he assigned me ten pages — a goal I failed to meet during the two-week hiatus. But Kellen wouldn’t let me quit. He gave me assignment after assignment, all the while speaking encouraging words: “Quitting is not an option.” “Find a way, like you always do.”

One time, I asked him how he found the professor job, and of course he said he loved it. Then I asked, “Do you love it because you get to give your teacher homework or for some other reason?”

He looked at me in all sincerity and said, “You should write. You need to write.”

At that moment, I took his belief in me and made it my own. A slew of accomplishments followed in the next few months. Once struggling to write ten pages in two weeks, I knocked out eight in a single night. I frequented coffee shops around Seattle as an incentive to get my assignments done. Before I knew it, I had fifty pages completed, then seventy-five, and finally, five months after becoming my student’s student, I realized an old dream — completing a first draft of 109 pages, nearly 65,000 words.

I had always considered myself a writer, but thanks to Kellen, I finally consider myself a novelist. Since he became my professor, my dormant idea developed into a complete rough draft. Since he became my professor, I went from writing barely once a month to writing not only every day, but craving time and coffee to do it. Most significantly, since he became my professor, I believe that I can climb the arduous mountain that is writing a book.

After completing the draft, I was ready to take a break, but Kellen wouldn’t hear of it. He generously gave me a week off, and then promptly began assigning me work for my next book. As the school year grew intensely busy in the spring, he still encouraged me to write. But like a good teacher, he recognized my need to focus on schoolwork and adapted to that need.

Writing can be a lonely journey. I count myself so blessed and fortunate to have had Kellen’s guidance and mentorship throughout the process of writing my first book. He even continued his class job after graduating. He wants to see one of his former teachers become a published author. I will always be grateful for his unyielding faith in me. One of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned as a teacher is that students can inspire teachers to do some amazing things.

~JC Santos

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