The vast majority of writers, if you ask, will tell you that they knew they were storytellers from their earliest years. Me, too. I have a bunch of anecdotes about writing stories, acting out plays, telling the entire plots of films to friends, editing the sixth grade newspaper, and making my first stab at a novel when I was fifteen: a riveting tale about a fifteen-year-old girl who hung out with friends and…did stuff. Hey, it made all my friends weep with ecstasy and made our mothers (who forbore to read) look at me worriedly.
There was encouragement from teachers along the way, too.
Mr. Cullen taught an English class focused on writing short stories, and It was serious fun; his sense of humor was balanced with just enough authority to keep a bunch of squirrely high school juniors on task.
That he had published some short mystery stories in magazines like Ellery Queen magazine made him extremely legit. For me, Mr. Cullen was bona fide.
One afternoon he walked among our desks, passing back the most recent homework. The assignment: choose a newspaper article of any kind, and write a short story using the real-life facts. As he strolled from student to student, he praised the class on how well we’d done.
“I was happy to see how creative you got with this one,” he said. “Everyone did a great job. And I don’t mean to create any embarrassment by saying so, but there’s one student in this class whose writing is head and shoulders above the rest. I’m impressed.”
(Of course, by this time the class was utterly silent, almost holding our collective breath, wondering who he meant.)
“That student is…”
He said my name, and laid my assignment on the desk in front of me. Was I embarrassed? Maybe a little. But mostly I experienced a surge of possibility like nothing I’d ever felt before. He’d written those words on my paper: “Head and shoulders above the rest of the class.”
I never forgot it. I never will—it was the first serious validation I got as a writer.
A few weeks ago, I thought about that moment, and I thought about Mr. Cullen. It occurred to me that I wanted to track him down and write him a letter, to tell him exactly how wonderful and formative that small moment was in my life.
It only took a few seconds of online searching to discover that Mr. Cullen died almost thirteen years ago. It’s not exactly surprising news. After all, I’m almost sixty now, and he was well into adulthood back then. Still, it brought tears to my eyes to read of his passing.
I have no doubt he planted a lot of encouragement in a lot of aspiring young writers during that time. I wish I’d thought to tell him, a long time ago that I was one of them.
Thanks, Mr. Cullen.
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