At Isaac Newton School, my third grade Social Studies teacher walked out of The Far Side into our classroom. Mrs. Glotzbecker was a plump middle-aged woman who squeezed into dresses suitable only for Doris Day in her prime. She wore pointy rhinestone-studded glasses, and bleached blond hair in a French twist. She’d taught all my big sisters, and whenever she called on me, it was by one of their names.
On the first day of class we opened our history books and read about Fort Detroit. Our assignment was to draw a picture of it. Every day we read aloud, then worked silently. If Mrs. Glotzbecker caught you chewing gum, like Jerry Fink, she made you wear it on your nose. If she caught you talking, like Jerry Fink, she made you sit in the wastebasket. Repeat offenders felt the sting of Old Harry, the paddle on the wall. Jerry became the stuff of legend after Mrs. Glotzbecker sat him in the cardboard wastebasket and it split into pieces. He was elevated to folk hero when she broke Old Harry on his backside and he just grinned at his buddies, who cheered him on.
Every day in class I worked on my drawing. Fort Detroit looked better and better. I added a canoe on the riverbank, a fish in the water. After a week or two, I couldn’t think of anything else to add, so I used crayons to color it, but details were lost beneath the wax. I erased stuff and started over, but that left smudges and wore holes in the paper. I suspected something was going terribly wrong. I was sick of Fort Detroit, but kept working it like a hangnail. Finally Mrs. Glotzbecker collected our notebooks for grading. She got to mine, and called me to her desk.
“Where’s the rest of your work?” she said.
“You said to draw a picture of Fort Detroit,” I whispered.
“That was weeks ago. Where are the answers to the questions at the end of the chapter? And the next five chapters?”
I swear I never heard her tell us to answer any questions. But, dangit! I should have known. I’d had a feeling, but was too shy to ask for help or even clarification. I was confused, and when Mrs. Glotzbecker reached for Old Harry, I was mortified.
What I learned from Mrs. Glotzpecker that day, I’ve applied to my writing. Follow the submission guidelines! And your gut. When in doubt, raise your hand, ask questions. Cut the fat for a cleaner read or add a scene to flesh it out, but don’t polish the silver off the teapot, or edit until you’ve worn holes in your paper.
What I learned from Jerry Fink was even more important. Be resilient. Build up calluses—in all the right places. Let no one, and certainly not your editor, intimidate you. Find a support group to cheer you on—there are local, regional, and national organizations you can join. Most importantly, remember that sometimes it’s okay to break the rules, but let no one break your spirit.
“Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
–Leonardo Da Vinci, Italian Renaissance Polymath (1452-1519)
“A poem is never finished, only abandoned.”
–Paul Valery, French Critic and Poet (1871-1945)
“Remember Fort Detroit!”
–Naomi Baltuck, Author, Storyteller, and Native Detroiter (1956- )