Write from the Heart
Writer / Janelle Morrison
Photograhper / JJ Kaplan
As the long summer days begin to wind down, and the annual ritual of hunting for the yellow highlighters (5-pack) and other seemingly obsolete school supplies begins, I am reminded of the harsh reality that my eldest child is entering her middle school years and that there are now two decades spanning since I last rushed to class as the final bell rang.
Let’s take a trip back down amnesia lane and think back on our formative years in school. What was your favorite subject? Which teacher had a hand in developing who you are today?
Not many adults have the privilege of reuniting with their favorite high school teachers. I had such an opportunity just over a year ago. While working from my office that is nestled on the second floor of the children’s store Ballerinas and Bruisers in downtown Zionsville, I engaged in a conversation with one of the store’s customers who looked remarkably familiar. Deeper into the conversation, she and I realized that she had been my W131 teacher at Carmel High School and was the one teacher who realized my potential. She encouraged me to indulge in my passion for literature that led me to become a professional writer.
Several moons post-graduation, my former composition teacher, Peggy Baker, and I were reunited and we picked up from where we left off before I ventured onto my life’s path. Peggy, a Zionsville resident, began teaching in the English department for the Carmel Clay Schools in 1989 and retired from a fulfilling career in 2012.
Peggy and I have spent several conversations since that fateful day at her favorite children’s store, about her instructions and how she was one of the teachers who truly took the time to invest in her students, including me. She is the one teacher who instilled in me the importance of editing and re-editing and having the confidence to keep working until the piece was “just right.” While many other teachers and professors would just bleed all over my papers with red ink, Peggy would edit with a Number 2 pencil. She would say, “Mistakes are made so they can be corrected. Now, let’s look at how we can make this sentence better.”
Peggy taught several classes at CHS including W131, American Literature, British Literature, English Honors, Classical Literature and Novels, just to name a few. As the wife of Judge John Baker, a judge on the Indiana Court of Appeals, Peggy would take her W131 class downtown to the Statehouse, take a tour of the Judges’ Chambers and sit in the audience while her husband would preside over cases that involved criminal issues, including murder, and other fascinating matters. Afterwards, she would have her students write about the case and hypothesize over what the verdict might be, and participate in their own mock trial and jury cases.
Peggy proudly admits that a few of her students have gone on to become successful litigators and that they share with her their gratitude for having taken her class and applying her instruction to their current professions.
While we discussed the W131 class I had with Peggy, she explained that there are three crucial components to that particular class that have lasting impacts on her students’ ability to succeed in all professions, not just the writers and journalists. The three directives are: critical reading, critical thinking and critical writing.
“What you write says more about you than any other form of communication,” Peggy said. “My husband, John, spends a great deal of time writing by virtue of his profession as a judge. My favorite quote from John that I shared with my students is, ‘There is no such thing as good writing…only good rewriting.’ The emphasis in my W131 classes was on the importance of good editing. Regardless of a student’s writing ability, I wanted each of them to have the ability to write letters and professional correspondence, and to be able to edit his or her own work with confidence.”
I asked her how it feels to know she has made a significant impact on some of her students and if it validated her years as a teacher. She replied, “I am very proud of my students. I have run into quite a few of them over the years and most of them will tell me they had me for W131, novels or another one of the English classes. They will tell me they are most grateful that they learned to edit and proof properly. Many have also said that what they learned in my class made a difference in their job interview process and put them ahead of other candidates.”
Besides myself, another former student has reunited with Peggy, and he married one of her nieces. Together, they have shared fond memories of Peggy’s classes at CHS.
I am honored that my former teacher and now mentor, continues to critique my work and will repeat, almost verbatim, remarks she would make to me during my senior year of high school. She continues to gently offer suggestions on my approach. My favorite instruction is when she tells me, “Janelle, I prefer you write from your heart. When it is personal, it is more meaningful.”
Over the years, I never forgot her words of encouragement. Her critiques were with me in every essay, article and professional correspondence I’ve written. Today, she continues to mentor me and offers her guidance whenever I seek her assistance with a challenging assignment. I still learn from her and she continues to build my confidence.
If every student is as lucky to have a teacher mentoring at the level of dedication that Mrs. Peggy Baker did, then I have great hope for the future writers and yes, even the future litigators, in this world.