At age 15 my writing abilities were far above those of my peers. Any essay I turned in, no matter how vapid, met universal praise. Many teachers assured me that this would one day be my career. It was very encouraging, but as a result I got lazy. I rarely did assigned reading, and when it came time for the book report I just churned out some flowery praise and waited for my A. No one ever seemed to notice that the pretty words said essentially nothing.
I participated in John Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (“CTY”) program four years in a row. It was one of the most important experiences of my life, socially much more than academically. In fact the social aspect of the program is probably why, when we were assigned a report on Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” I didn’t bother reading the book. I think I spent the assigned homework time writing some fiction of my own instead.
I turned in the usual tripe, one page front and back, and expected the usual praise. Instead, scrawled in red pen across the top of the page, I got this:
This paper would have been better used if you’d folded it into a paper airplane and thrown it out the window.”
It was Dr. Phil Boshoff who gave me that review. I was shocked at first, but even at that age I think I appreciated it. He didn’t coddle me because I was smart for my age. He saw that I hadn’t done the work, he knew I was capable of more, and he called me on it. In no unclear terms.
I kept that sheet for a while, but over the years I think it got lost. I wish I still had it. I would frame it and hang it over my writing desk.