Tales of a Sixth Grade Writer

The sixth grade me. I kept my writing talent in my hair.
The sixth grade me. I kept my writing talent in my hair.

I mentioned in a previous post how Sunday morning TV programming helped kickstart my writing career.

Mrs. Snelback, however, was the one who kept me on the writing path for life.

Mrs. Snelback was my sixth grade teacher. She didn’t seem to like children all that much. The children didn’t seem to like her all that much, either. They did, however, fear and respect her.

I liked Mrs. Snelback. I understood her personality type; my Great Uncle Bill was very much like her, grumpy on the outside but a great person underneath. Uncle Bill got happy just like everyone else, but it was a subtle, non-demonstrative kind of happiness. Blink and you’d miss any outward signs of it. I made a point not to blink much around Uncle Bill. He fascinated me.

Snelback fascinated me, too. She was my hero because she, like me, hated the clique of obnoxious popular girls who abused people for sport. And, unlike every other teacher at Lincoln Elementary, Snelback refused to ignore these girls’ inner ugliness. She punished them with relish and reveled in their subsequent waves of whining.

“Oh, that isn’t fair?” Snelback would ask after the whiniest among them ran out of steam. “Well, life isn’t fair, honey.”

And because Snelback always enjoyed giving the knife just one more twist, she’d close with a mock frowny-faced, “Oh you poor thing!”

Snelback didn’t believe in sending people to the principal. Any misbehaving that took place in her room would be handled in her room, thank you very much.

One of Snelback’s favorite punishments was “The Infamous 100 Words.” If, for example, Tommy T. called out in class without raising his hand, Snelback would bellow, “THOMAS! 100 words on raising hands!”

And, that night, Tommy T. would have to write a 100-word essay on why it was important to raise your hand before speaking.

The Infamous 100 Words was like KP. Everyone had to deal with it sooner or later. I was no exception.

“MICHAEL!” Snelback bellowed. “100 words on talking in class!”

So be it.

When one of my classmates penned an Infamous 100 Words on talking in class, he would write that talking in class was rude to the children and the teacher.

He would then write that talking inhibited the learning process.

He would then write that he was sorry.

He would then write that when a kid talks in class…um…the Communists win.

On and on it went until a 70-word essay became an 80-word essay, and that 80-word became a 90-word, and that 90-word became a 95-word, and that 95-word became…still a 95-word, and…and…and…OH, COME ON! I JUST NEED FIVE MORE FREAKING WORDS! THINK! THINK!

As far as I was concerned, that was a stupid way to write The Infamous 100 Words. I had a different technique. I told a story:

Little Billy Bumpus leaned over to tell his neighbor the latest booger joke. Unfortunately the teacher heard. She stared hard at Billy, and, without a word, reached for the tiny key that hung around her neck. The class gasped. Some of the girls put their heads on their desks. They knew what was about to happen and didn’t want to see it.

The teacher unlocked the bottom drawer of her desk. Out popped the toe monster. It oozed from his home onto the floor and slithered down the aisle to Billy’s chair. Billy, resigned to his fate, gripped the sides of his desk as the toe monster wrenched off his shoe, yanked off his sock, and bit off Billy’s big toe down to the second knuckle.

“You have nine more chances to behave in this class, Mr. Billy Bumpus!” the teacher said. “Because once your toes are gone, so are YOU!”

There! 100 Words on talking in class. More like 150 words, but who’s counting?

My stories attracted Mrs. Snelback’s attention.

When Mom and Dad came to the next parent teacher conference, the first words out of Mrs. Snelback’s mouth was this: “Do you know what your son’s strongest subject is?”

“Reading,” Mom said. “He is always reading.” This was true.

“WRONG!” Snelback bellowed. “It is WRITING! Your son should be a writer. Your son WILL be a writer!”

The inference was that if I didn’t become a writer, it would be my mom’s fault.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was seven. I was now 12 and the desire to write was still strong. When Mom told me what Mrs. Snelback said, I wanted to be a writer more than anything in the world.

I wanted to prove Mrs. Snelback right. And she was right. Thanks to her, I’ll be a writer until the day I die.

So! Was there a teacher in your life who was particularly influential?

86 Replies to “Tales of a Sixth Grade Writer”

  1. I like your approach to essays. While I’m very much a non-fiction writer, my darling daughter has always found non-fiction and essays painful. I suggested to her a long time ago that she treat essays like a story and work that way. She insisted it wasn’t what the teacher wanted. She’s still writing – not essays. I’m glad to know I wasn’t way off the mark in my advice! 😉 xoxoM

    1. I have often found that “not what the teacher wants” is a statement that sometimes stands in for “not what the teacher expects.” These are two entirely different sentiments, however. Mrs. Snelback didn’t expect my Toe Monster story, but she sure welcomed it once it arrived.

  2. What an awesome story! It’s awesome a teacher saw that potential in you at such a young age and encouraged it. Sometimes I think it’s the people like that that see potential in us that give us the courage/faith to keep at it or pursue the arts as a career (in a time when the arts are so undervalued).

  3. I’m impressed with your sixth-grade self. The hair, the orange and brown striped shirt. The use of suspense in your essay. You were beyond your years.

  4. Awesome story. I’m thinking that it’s a kid’s book waiting to happen. You have so many lurking in the wings.

    My senior English teacher, the one with the rug dyed a color at odds with his natural hair, the one with a wispy mustache, the one who disappeared to NYC every summer with a fellow English teacher to see as many Broadway shows as humanly possible, the one who mentored the newspaper staff, the one who initiated the “English Olympic Teams,” the one who expected his students to produce everything from limericks to haiku to short stories to 30-page semester papers on individual authors (after reading at least 5 of the author’s books plus a biography). I will remember this fabulous man until my dying breath.

  5. This does not surprise me at all. I can totally picture sixth-grade you doing this. I don’t suppose Mrs. Snelback is still with us, that you could contact her to tell her how you turned out? I had a Great Aunt Margaret who was like Mrs. Snelback and your Uncle Bill. I had a few teachers who influenced me, one of whom was my very favorite Social Studies teacher in 7th and 8th grade, Mr. McAuley. He taught history like he was telling an adventure story. He was fantastic. Many years later my mother ran into him and told him that I was in grad school for history, in large part because of him (which is true), and apparently it made his day. That made me happy.

    1. That is such a wonderful story! I always love it when a teacher learns how he or she has made a difference.

      In the past, I have told several of my high school teachers how much they influenced me. I had never found the opportunity to reconnect with Mrs. Snelback, however.

      I remember hearing a few years ago that Mrs. Snelback had passed away. Considering that she was my teacher 30 years ago, this is probably true. I’m not certain, though.

      Hm. Perhaps a little investigation is in order…

  6. Love this post! My version of Mrs. Snelback was my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Slepnikoff. (Perhaps their names influenced their teaching styles?) He was a grammar commando: if a child called out “Hey,” his response was always “Hay is for horses”; other children were never kids, because “Kids are baby goats,” and the list went on and on. I credit him for starting me down the path to an obsession with words!

  7. Love the photograph. Awesome. We all had some great hair back then.

    I will have to write about one of my English teachers from high school. She didn’t ever tell me I hung the moon. But I did get the impression that she liked my writing better than, say, her soon-to-be-ex-husband. She had an attitude, but she was fair. She made us memorize Shakespeare, but I remember it to this day, which is pretty cool. Funny how someone doesn’t have to give us hugs to give us that little kick of career inspiration.

  8. I agree with Madame Weebles. If Mrs. Snelback is still alive she would be absolutely thrilled to hear about your success. I did have a science teacher who presented science in such an interesting way that it always stayed with me. Twelve years after I completed his class I suddenly got the urge to contact him and let him know how much I appreciated being in his class. He had retired but the school contacted him and relayed my message. He then phoned me and I did get to talk to him in person. As far as my writing inspiration, that was two-fold…the students in my class and one of the parents who encouraged me to write. Encouragement goes a long way!

    1. Oh, that is a wonderful story about your science teacher. I have heard the Mrs. Snelback had passed away, but you and Weebles have convinced me to make absolutely sure.

      If Snelback is still of this world, she will be hearing from me.

  9. Well, that was a beautiful story. Thanks Mrs. Snelback!

    Miss Davis was my 199 year old fourth grade teacher. She was known for three things:
    (a) Any student heard hiccuping was forced to eat a spoonful of table sugar from the moldy mason jar in the bottom drawer of her desk. Same spoon since 1954.
    (b) After our class said the Pledge of Allegiance we had to sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” We lived in Massachusetts. Miss Davis was from Texas.
    (c) If Miss Davis could not see a student’s eyes (male or female) she pulled a pack of rusty bobby pins from the top drawer of her desk and speared the offending bangs back into your head, thus revealing your teared-up peepers.

    I know Miss Davis was particularly influential. I think she gave me 4th grade PTSD.

    1. You should consider yourself lucky, Cathy. If your teacher made you sing “New York, New York,” it would have started an elementary school riot. You and your classmates might have been charged with Mrs. Davis’ murder.

  10. That name is classic! I love it. It’s cool how someone so influential helped to encourage you on the path that you began even a few years before.

    That picture is adorable!

  11. This. Is. Awesome.

    I think I was influenced by the English Ed professor who, among other things, told us to write a short story of some kind so that we would learn how to constructively criticize and grade our future student’s creative writing.

    After we were done red-penning, she took them back and graded our grading, then passed them back to the graders before having them returned to the original writers.

    There was a note on the top of my thing that said, “Write the rest of this and let me read it, please. And consider a creative writing minor.”

    I didn’t take her advice about the creative writing—wish I had, sometimes—but it was the first time someone had said anything like that to me before. And it got me thinking . . .

    (there was also the prof teaching 17th Century poetry and prose who dubbed me a wiseass like it was a medal of honor—I obviously took that to heart)

    1. You should consider your blog a creative writing minor. You write more there than you ever would’ve in a classroom.

      And your English Prof. was right about you. Your stuff is great.

      I also suspect that you are still a wiseass. And this, too, is great.

  12. I’m so glad your teacher encouraged and inspired your writing. You obviously have the writing bug and the imagination to create a myriad of stories. Thanks for sharing your teacher with us. 🙂

      1. Oh. Um. That’s a little stalk-y, Beth. You should make your presence known more often. You’re always welcome!

        Come on in. Have a scone. You Brits like scones, yes? If you want seconds, feel free to take Vanessa’s. Her loss for being late to the comments section.

      2. Stalk-y is my middle name! Well, it isn’t really…. that’s not the point though!

        While a scone does sound lovely, I’m afraid I can’t eat wheat or dairy, so I think I’ll have to pass. Thanks though! 😛

        I shall make my prescence known more often! 🙂


  13. I’ve had many teachers influence me along the way when it comes to writing. I first began doing a writing journal in seventh grade as an assignment for Mrs. Olson’s class. I never kept up with the journal as part of the class, but afterwards a writing journal became an essential part of my writing, a constant companion. I call it my ‘Idea Box’ and am currently on number 18.

    1. I’ve always been terrible with journals. I have no idea why, but I just can’t get into the habit of writing my ideas down in a tidy book. My “idea box” is just a full-to-bursting file folder jam-packed with scraps of paper, scribbled on magazine pages, and the occasional epiphany on a cocktail napkin. It’s the only messy part of my otherwise impeccable home office.

  14. Toe monster? Your teacher had a toe monster in her drawer too?

    I had an influential teacher . . . 4th Grade – Mrs. Lorman. She taught me how NOT to treat other people by example. She was a witch, and yes, I am still bitter about it.

  15. This is a great post. Teaching can be monotonous when you are confronted with the same thing over and over, so those students that do something different must brighten their day! And it’s great when they encourage that. I’ve been told by two separate teachers at my daughter’s parents evenings (she’s 14), that she’s an ‘independent thinker’, and I think I’m more pleased to hear that than anything else they say about her! (Even if it’s a caged criticism!). It’s a trait that does mean she can be challenging at home, and sometimes I wish she would conform more, but I know that longer term it will serve her well and get her noticed.

    I don’t have a particular teacher that I would say was influential as such, but certain things that different teachers said or did have stayed with me, and been some form of inspiration.

  16. Such a good story! I had a sixth grade teacher just like that – Mrs. Schupe. My class forced her into retirement, and I’ll always feel a tad guilty about that. I’m totally going to torture my children with 100 word punishments. I am also going to have toe monster nightmares tonight. That’s your fault.

    1. Assigning a 100-word essay to a four-year-old is a bit stern — even by Mrs. Snelback’s standards. But, hey, she’s you’re kid. Just be prepared for the inevitable Mommy Dearest-style memoir.

      On an entirely different note, wearing ski boots to bed is a good way to protect your toes. The more you know…

  17. Love it! She sounds so awesome – especially love teachers who go after mean girls. I am a writer because I can’t do anything else particularly well (ask me to draw something sometime) and because two or three teachers encouraged me to pursue it. You’re definitely in the right field.
    I did have a surly teacher who told me I’d “never make it to Venice” Italy because it “costs money.” Guess where I am going at the end of this year? She’s probably dead by now but spite is one of my favorite motivators.
    Congrats on all the comments! Great story.

  18. I love Mrs. Snelback, and wherever she is, she is grinnig proudly (of herself AND of you).

    My 6th grade teacher was Mrs. Nixon. She thought I was a ‘genius’ and made me get tested for genius-ity. I knew I wasn’t a genius, I was just the only kid in class who listened to her, did the exercises in class, and then the homework. Viola, I got A’s. However the genius test came back and convinced her (and my parents) that I was a savant in math, and at some point I’d save the world with my math skills. But I liked to read and write, so I started NOT doing my math exercises and homework. Problem solved.

    Since then, I just read and write. Thank you, Mrs. Nixon.

  19. Nice teachers included Mrs Johnson–kindergarten, just past away. I would have gone to the funeral but I was preparing AP students for exams. Another nice one, and we are still in contact is Mr C. Don’t know what he would have done with a toe monster story; he did like my snow poem though. The meanies are just as memorable: Ames in third grade who aspected short stories with photos yet did not allow anything else resembling fun in her class; Starr, who imbibed and laughed at my cursive writing attempts. The good, the bad, and the ugly–we remember them best, don’t we!

  20. Mike, I’m so glad someone put a link up to this (God only knows all the gems here that go way back that I haven’t read). First of all—Mrs. Snelback and I would’ve gotten along great—her attitude toward the stuck-uppers is PERfect, AND—more importantly, I love that YOU couldn’t stand them since they were probably the “pretty” ones all the guys wanted, but not you! 😀 Admiration here for that one, bud!

    I love absolutely every little thing about this anecdote. Thanks for sharing it with us, Mr. Writer-or-else 🙂

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