|Photos courtesy of publisher|
|Published by Sphere books|
15th March 2012
Matthew tells us how he challenged his English teacher
In the acknowledgements of SOMETHING MISSING, my first novel, I thank Mark Compopiano, my high school English teacher, for teaching me that “words can change minds.”
When I entered Mr. Compo’s English class, I thought of myself of a good writer. Though I couldn’t type or spell to save my life and nothing that I submitted was ever on time, the words and sentences came easily to me, and I had a lot to say. I wrote for the school newspaper and kept a diary off and on during my high school career, and I wrote a lot of notes and letters to girls.
Though I never thought that writing could become a career for me, I also managed to make a little money with my ability. For a short period of time, I went into the business of writing and selling term papers for my fellow students. Charging between $25-$100 depending on the topic and length of the term paper, I managed to buy my first car, a 1978 Chevy Malibu, with the profits of this covert operation.
The day that I truly became a writer was November 29, 1988. On that day, I turned in an assignment in which I was asked to write a piece that demonstrated the use of satire. I wrote a short piece on how America claims to be the land of the free, yet young men can be forcibly sent to foreign countries in order to kill strangers. I also noted that it is illegal to engage in prostitution and commit suicide, both seemingly personal decisions, and that many states restricted the rights of homosexuals.
In reading this piece today, I cringe. It is not well written. It is not funny. It is not original in any way. And it is barely satirical. But on that day in November, I was certain that I was handing in a gem,
Three days later, Mr. Compo handed back the assignment with a grade of B-.
I was confounded. Scrawled across the paper were the words “Not satire” (as well as “Many spelling errors!”). At the top of the page, Mr. Compo had written:
“Some of this is not satire. It’s too obvious”.
I disagreed. Despite his years of experience, I had decided in that moment that Mr. Compo was wrong. He concluded that he has no understanding of satire and had missed the whole point of my piece. Emboldened by overconfidence, I approached his desk and protested my grade. We debated the merits of my piece for a while, and finally, he offered a solution:
Read the piece to the class. If a majority of my classmates believed that it represented satire, he would increase the score by one letter grade. But if a majority agreed with Mr. Compo, he would decrease my score by one letter grade.
Basking in self-assurance and unable to refuse a challenge, I agreed. Though I knew that my classmates would be fair and objective, I was also certain that I was right and that they would side with me.
By a unanimous vote, the class declared my work to be satire and my B- was instantly transformed into an A-. I still have the assignment upon which the change in score is noted.
After reading the piece aloud, Mr. Compo admitted that the tone in which I read the piece helped in delineating the satire quite well, and what initially sounded dry and rhetorical came to life as I spoke the words.
Some of David Sedaris’s work can be like this. Read it and you think, “That was amusing.” Listen to him read it and you’re rolling on the floor in fits of laughter.
Don’t get me wrong. I was no David Sedaris, nor am I anywhere in his league today. My piece, which was entitled Welcome to America, is amateurish, silly, and somewhat embarrassing as I read it today, but on that December morning, I learned that my words can change minds. On that morning, I had changed the mind of a man I respected a great deal, perhaps the man who I respected the most at that time. From then on, I knew that I wanted to write.
It would be another fifteen years before I would even begin writing SOMETHING MISSING, but the short stories, the Op-Eds, the poetry, and everything else that followed can be traced back to that December morning when I read a piece of writing and changed a teacher’s mind.
Thank you, Mr. Compo.
Thank you, Matthew for sharing this with us. Happy Publication Day!
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend is published by Sphere books and is available today!