I speak to you as a convert- one that unapologetically loves essays. Throughout high school, I was told that essays “weren’t fun”. My English teachers would sigh as the class moaned when they assigned a literary analysis; history teachers told us that we “didn’t have to enjoy it, we just had to tick the points and get out” when writing a timed piece. We were constantly told that a liberal arts degree would be comprised of all essays, and that we were saying “not enough in too many words”. This promptly caused much of my graduating class to pursue science degrees. It wasn’t until grade 11, the first year of the “university prep” International Baccalaureate (which by the way is even harder to complete than it is to spell) that something started to click. English was always one of my best subjects: I wrote commentaries and essays formulaically and without enjoyment, but I struck the right chords. It was a system and I had figured it out. I could cast aside my love of ideas and opinions and literary liberty, I could override my voice as a writer, all in the pursuit of “being objective”. Then I saw the light.
I’ve always loved poetry. I love conjugations, alliterations, and rhymes give me this unrivalled happiness that most worldly things could never come close to. I’ve always found words absolutely beautiful. They capture pieces of hearts and minds and voices that would otherwise go unnoticed. To me, Sylvia Plath was the first piece to understanding that I, in fact, loved essays. I read The Bell Jar the summer before grade 11 and I was absolutely mesmerized by how hauntingly she could articulate so many feelings that I had but could never explain. I wrote my own poems (not good ones, but I wrote them nonetheless) but I could never quite put into words these feelings and experiences that I had. Reading Sylvia Plath in her tragic glory made me understand my love of words to an extent that I didn’t fully conceive as possible until that point.
However, even though I loved words and language, I still hated the idea of the essay- of course I did, I was conditioned to believe that they were there as a form of punishment for students. It was in grade 11 that I had a teacher that changed my life in that regard. She knew I loved writing poetry- she was actually the only person that had ever read my poetry- and after countless conversations dedicated to workshopping an essay that I couldn’t quite fit into my understanding of “the system”, she told me to “think of essays like poems: you get a structure, a set of ‘rules’ for each different “type”, but the rules mean nothing if you don’t make it your own”. She told me that there was no right or wrong way to write an essay, as long as it argued a point well and made sense. As simple as this piece of wisdom was, it changed how I saw essays. They were no longer words glued together with structural rules and unadulterated fear of failure, but they became writing. I see essays now as stories that I don’t have to tell but want to tell, because the subject matter somehow goes from something I’ve never heard of before to the most important subject in the world to me (that is, until the next one).
So, I digress. I have now become less “relatable”- to this day I am the only person I have met that shares such opinions on this particular genre of writing. Unfortunately, this excitement does not completely extend to all other forms of assessment that I continue to face pursuing my degree. I fear failing tests (unfortunately the poetry analogy does not extend to multiple choice), but I can’t help but look forward to writing. I’m excited to write essays on subjects and concepts that, currently, I don’t even know that I don’t know (even though I’ll most definitely face at least a few failures).
As I reflect on my years in high school, I can’t help but wonder why my teachers seemed so adamant against writing essays (honestly, who hurt them and made them feel this way?). Maybe they were putting on an act to relate to their students, or maybe they were genuinely jaded by their own experiences as students The one thing I do know, is that high school teaches its students many things, but the magic of words isn’t one of them, and that’s a damn shame.