Ugly Little Monster, by Laura Allen

Writing the essay for Invictus Writer Laura Rose Allen as we publish her essay Ugly Little Monster has proven to be more difficult than I thought.

Laura, for me, was an enigma.

At some point as a teacher, you realize it’s impossible to predict the trajectory of each individual student relationship. Sometimes it’s very easy. Students glide into your life looking for the very thing you have to offer. It’s magical. Other times it’s very hard. Students stomp into your world daring you to try to teach them anything. That is less than magical.

Then there was Laura.

She sat quietly in my Introduction to Magazine Writing class, but as I lectured she’d furrow her brow, squinting at me from the back row. This is disconcerting. For months I didn’t know don’t know where we stood. Maybe she liked me. Maybe she didn’t. And I could never get a straight answer from her on the matter when I asked.

In a profession where student success is largely determined upon their relationship with the teacher, students who make no movement one way or the other make daunting the task of teaching. Add to that our wildly divergent views on politics and religion and I worried I would lose her before we ever had the chance to get started.

There was work to be done, though, so we forged tenuously ahead, me trying to gauge if anything I was saying was making it through and her furrowing her brow at me from the back row.

I was never quite sure where we stood on the student-teacher relationship front, but about halfway through the semester I started to sense that she was one of those elusive Writer creatures I was searching for. As story pitches and rough drafts were due, she began showing up in my office stressing out about her work. She was searching for angles, wondering about research, and struggling with the act structures of writing.

The process was maddening to me. She was at times gripped by the fear of failure, the ultimate no-no in my class, and nothing I could say would budge her off her perch.

Then a switch clicked in my head. I came to realize that while some of the brow furrowing was at my inability to provide her answers, most of it was directed at the words on the page. Or, more accurately, the words that wouldn’t get on the page.

I was watching a writer find her way.

Slowly, surely, and inevitably she pounded through her story ideas, her rough drafts, and her final papers. She struggled and wrestled with her three stories, crafting and re-crafting, driving me up the wall with question after question, rewrite after rewrite.

There were days I thought about shirking my teacher duty and hiding when I’d see her in the hallway.

As the semester ended and I read the final drafts of my students’ work, Laura’s story about the start of a men’s university club running association leaped off the page. All of that work and frustration faded away:

“You can publish this,” I told her. It was national magazine quality, a rarity in the Introduction to Magazine Writing class. “You need to pitch this story to national magazine.”

She nodded in that disbelieving way that let me know she wouldn’t be pitching that story, and as the class ended Laura disappeared.

Finishing my class, though, rarely finishes your story with me. And I was bound and determined to get Laura to pitch that story. Eventually, I broke her will and she sent her pitch to Running Times. The editor responded immediately, and we were off and running on a journey that less than a year later led to the publication of her story, “The Other College Runners,” a fine piece of journalism and a wonderful piece of writing.

This summer, Laura will finish her university degree with an internship at Cincinnati Magazine, which is edited by my friend Jay Stowe. I’ve already sent him a message letting him know that he’s got a writer on his hands. (As for Laura, I suspect she’s wondering if she’s ever going to escape me.)

***

As a teacher, you can never predict the trajectory of your relationship with individual students but throughout the years I’ve grown fond of the process of those relationships.

I couldn’t be prouder of the work that Laura has done, but I’m proudest of the process we’ve developed.

It’s been messy, angry, happy, and distant. But it’s been ours, and it’s produced some amazing writing. Along the way, she’s helped me appreciate the relationships that sometimes burn slowly, a fact of which I need reminding quite often. And we’ve managed to avoid our political and religion differences, replacing them instead with a shared love of words and stories. We’ll never see eye-to-eye on the world, but I suspect we’ll always see eye-to-eye on the page.

I will miss her when she’s gone. I’ll miss her furrowed brow and her constant fretting. The only consolation I have is that I know stories will pour forth from her for years to come. And I know that I can’t wait to read them.

In that, there is no mystery.

***

As the coda, I realized that my two years with Laura had some effect upon her when – after the publication of her story in Running Times – she sent this Tweet:

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  • Laura Allen’s essay hit closer to home than I wanted to admit on my first read through. It awakened memories I thought long buried. Our teenage complaints fell on deaf ears until two male instructors had to marry the students they impregnated. I’m still not sure why these priests were allowed to teach at our “nun factory”. I believe our all girls school was to give them cover as they “restored their religious vocation”… catholic church’s answer to most scandals – “pass the trash”.

    I’m glad the author and her parents were able to have the coach fired. More importantly though is that an independent, creative, free spirit was not stifled as a result.

  • Sounds like learning experiences were had by all!

    • As they say in The Program: that’s how it works 🙂