When I got my report card in November I was delighted to see that I had received a 92 in English. Considering that I had started grade 11 English with a 67, it was quite an improvement. Now, notice that I didn’t say anything along the lines of my being pleasantly surprised, shocked, or astounded. I knew perfectly well why I’d gotten that 92. It wasn’t by winging presentations or being lucky. No sir, like every good thing in life, it came with hard work.
But to truly understand the story of the little black 92 typed on my blue TDSB-emblazoned sheet of paper and how it got there, let me take you back to my summer holiday of 2009. My break started well enough: a visit with my parents to England followed by staying with a friend in California.
The real story started the morning after we arrived back from Santa Barbara on August 1st. I woke up, drowsy from the trip back home, and went down to the kitchen to eat. As I was spooning the cornflakes into my mouth, my mother asked me what I was planning to do with the rest of my summer and how I was going to prepare for grade 12. I shrugged and mumbled some excuse about checking Hamlet out from the library and reading it. She nodded, looking thoroughly unconvinced.
“As I thought, you have no game plan do you? How are you going to get into a good University if your grades are like last year’s?” She demanded of me like a ruffled goose. I was about to reply, but she steamrollered on. “If you think you’re going to sit around in your PJs and do nothing until school starts, you are seriously mistaken. After your appalling performance in English last year, you’re going to sit down and relearn materials from grade 11!”
My expression was now of pure horror. Then the rules and regulations started raining down like a shower of rockets. I had to get up at 8:30 every morning, including weekends. At 9, I had to sit down at the kitchen table where my mother could see me, so that I wouldn’t skive off. I would log onto Sparknotes.com and, from there, choose a book that I had already read. I had to review things such as the synopsis, symbols, themes, and character analyses, and then click on sample essay questions. I would choose one of the questions and write an answer to it in essay form. After I wrote it I would click on the model answer button and see what came up. If my answer was similar to that of the model answer, then I had done well. But if the answer was different, I would have to explain to my mother why.
So started my rigorous training in how to write a good essay. I wrote comparative essays, literary essays, and personal essays. I wrote about Anne Frank’s diary, The Life of Pi, Lord of the Flies, The Bean Trees, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and so much more. After I had finished writing my essay, I handed it to my mother and she read it over, putting in her corrections with a red pen and explaining why she liked or disliked various parts.
The first week was horrible. I didn’t want to sit down and write an essay while all of my friends were sleeping in or hanging out. I resented having to sit down at the kitchen table with Mum next to me, supervising me like a toddler. My answers were nothing like those of the sample answers, and my mother tore apart my essays without reserve.
By the second week though, I had noticed a marked change. She pointed out fewer errors in my writing and actually began to ask me why instead of immediately criticizing my work. I found it easier to identify the themes and symbols in books that I was reading for pleasure and I began to question why the author’s choice of words.
By the third week, it had become a routine. I was at the table between 9 and 9:15 and my mother would ask, “Which book are you reading today?” And so, the first day of school crept closer and closer as I continued to churn these essays out like a photocopier.
I remember the first day of English. Mr. Small asked us to answer some comprehension questions about a convocation address and the entire class groaned. I relaxed as I began to read the questions. I had seen the exact same ones in Sparknotes and had answered all of them at least five times each. I started writing, and handed the assignment in, pretty confident that I had done well.
When I got my assignment back a few weeks later, I got a grade of 88%. That’s when I knew I had cracked it. Although my mom’s approach was probably a little extreme, an essay a day, what she proved to me, and what I hope I’ve proved to you, is that practice makes perfect… or pretty close. For all of those students who are unhappy with their English marks, there is something that can be done. Instead of complaining, read a book. When you’re reading, think about it analytically. Try to find the central theme or thesis of the work and why it’s significant. Question the piece: why did the author choose that word, or that stylistic device? And after that, try writing something about it. Maybe it’s a review or a comparison essay to something else you’ve read. Anything. The trick is to keep reading and writing. In my case, an essay a day kept the seventies away!