Tag Archives: Yemassee

Teacher’s Pet

15 Mar

Yemassee

In every classroom I have ever been in, there have been two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Type 1 was the kid who always had to hand in everything first. Whether it was a homework assignment, or a test — this student made sure she was the first to complete her work, believing this signaled to the teacher (and to the rest of the class) that she was the most prepared for the task at hand; that she could breeze through the material like it was second nature; that she was so confident in her studying habits and her natural intelligence that she didn’t even need to check her work.

Type 2 was the kid who always checked his work. This student was often among the last to hand in his test — but not because he was unprepared, or rushing to finish the last few questions. Often, this student was actually the first to finish the test; he just didn’t see the point in running up to the front of the class to slap his bluebook on the teacher’s desk, just to be first across the finish line. To this student, it seemed evident that a certain amount of time had been allocated for the task, and that no bonus points were to be given for using the least amount of that time. At the end of the day, the only metric for academic success was how many questions you answered correctly.

Both types of student were — unfailingly — straight “A” students, academic rock stars. Successful at the game of grades. They just had different ways of going about their success.

*  *  *

I was never a very good student. Neither the first to hand in his paper, nor the one who was furiously scribbling as the clock wound down — I was somewhere in the upper-bottom half of the academic bell curve. Mediocre. Above-average intelligence, yet always falling just short of the level of which I was capable.

This confused and frustrated me, but it absolutely drove my parents nuts. They couldn’t understand why I wasn’t keeping up with the other “smart” kids in my class. Was I lazy? Spiteful? Easily distracted? Was I myself a disruption to the class? They would rake over my report card for “clues” to my poor performance, and demand to know what the problem was.

I had no answers. It wasn’t like I was some dumb kid. I didn’t have dyslexia, or A.D.D. I was a precocious reader, who devoured Mark Twain and Conan Doyle; by the time I was 12, I’d read pretty much every Sherlock Holmes and Tom Sawyer story. I was the kid who was reading The New Yorker under some tree while the other kids were playing street hockey. By the end of summer vacation, I actually craved the structure of school, and looked forward to going back. I loved reading, and drawing, and learning—

And school supplies! Every year, it was the same giddy routine: I’d go with my mom to the five-and-dime and fill up a shopping basket with spiral notebooks, looseleaf paper, legal pads; packs of markers and mechanical pencils; “wild-card” items like rulers and protractors; and of course, Trapper Keepers. (The trick was obtaining a Trapper Keeper with a suitably colorful and weirdly psychedelic design, preferably one that broadcast your unique personality to the rest of the class.)

With these gleaming new supplies came the promise of Academic Accomplishment — of being a good student, a good son. Yes, I was going to get it right this year; I was going to get organized; I was going to be the kid who handed his work in early; I was going to hit the books, pound the pavement, keep my eyes on the prize, and bring home First Honors.

But then the school year started, and … well, things happened. The plan fell through; the wheels spun off of the machine. I never could get organized. The binders I’d lovingly labeled, the spaces I’d allocated for each subject, went increasingly unused; my homework assignments and handouts never quite found their way into the proper folders and partitions. I was the kind of student who was always scrambling to find my papers, crumpled and torn, and sometimes soggy, in the bottom of my bookbag. If I could find them at all.

As the year progressed, and I fell further and further behind, it became a matter of academic survival, of wheezing to the finish line. By the end of the year, my parents were relieved if I simply passed all my classes. They rarely even looked at my final report card — just wanted to know if I was being left back. Another summer; another plan to get better. I never did figure it out.

*  *  *

I mention all of this because it’s once again story submitting season, and I’m reminded of all the little ways I underachieved in school. My failure to take encouragement, and criticism, in equal stride; my lifelong inability to get organized. You see, I want to have a system in which I wake up early, make a pot of coffee, sit down at my desk, and use some sort of spreadsheet software to track my submissions, and keep a log of editors’ responses, capitalizing on occasional words of encouragement. But my brain just isn’t wired that way, and no dosage of caffeine or nicotine or ginseng or Aderrall will reprogram me into either of the two types of “teacher’s pet.”

Believe me, I’ve tried.

*  *  *

This rejection slip from Yemassee offers several “clues” for successfully placing your work in the journal. You can be persistent — submit and submit and submit. You can read the damn magazine (this is what I would suggest) or order a sample copy, if you’re a cheapskate. At the very least, you can look at the writing they feature on their website, and maybe even address your cover letter to the appropriate editor. You can keep your ear to the ground and enter a contest, when one pops up. These are things a successful writer would (and should) do.

But that sort of success seems academic to me. It’s padding for your transcript; a showy, falsely-earned thing; a feather in your fedora. I would actually advise against submitting work to any magazine you don’t read at least semi-regularly. It’s bad form — and possibly bad karma. Worse: it never works.

My point is that it makes no sense to want to place your work in a magazine you’ve never read; to strive for membership in a group you know nothing about. It’s like the kid who scrutinizes the test’s instructions for five whole minutes, looking for some performative edge; who writes a long essay where a short answer will do, leaving no stone unturned, and gets the “A” through sheer force of diligence and drive. Or the girl who turns her work in as early as possible, to earn brownie points from a teacher who is hungover and couldn’t care less. In the end, no one cares about past publications, the editors you’ve worked with, your pedigree — they just want to be knocked out by your writing. (Even George Saunders, I’m pretty sure, has his trunk stories rejected from the big markets, from time to time.)

I also no longer submit stories simply on the virtue of my having completed them — or because they crossed the finish line under a certain word count. There are stories I “finished” ten years ago that still aren’t finished. There are stories I’m really proud of, but are nevertheless imperfect, or structurally fucked — and which I have no interest in un-fucking. Stories I want to salvage but simply can’t. There are stories I’m quite pleased with, but that don’t belong in either academic journals or commercial magazines — that occupy that awkward space between genre and literary — the kind of stuff Saunders and Kelly Link and Dan Chaon write. Stuff that might never find the “right” audience. And that’s okay. Who cares? Maybe I’ll self-publish those stories, or post them to Medium. Maybe I’ll print them out and give them to friends, when the mood strikes me, or leave them in coffee shops for punks and hobos to find. Or maybe they’ll just live on my hard drive until a tree falls on my car while I’m driving to work and my laptop is donated to some underfunded school district and a kid with peanut butter in his teeth pulls one up at random and thinks: “I can do better than this.” Maybe I’ll win a posthumous O. Henry Award. You never can plan these things, can you?

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