National Writing Project

Once, I Almost Died in a Canoe: Knocking out the Story

By: Tom Meyer
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 3
Date: 2004

Summary: In this personal reflection, Tom Meyer describes his anguish as a tenth grade student struggling to write essays—only to have his teacher tell him, "You are one of my worst five students." Meyer tells how the teacher worked with him before school for months to help him silence the inner voice that said "I can't write." As he reread and revised the story of when he almost lost his life, Meyer found his real voice—one that could capture words and speak to an audience. A voice that said "I can write."


Once, I almost died in a canoe. We hit a rock and capsized. Underwater, I had long enough to wonder if I would ever breathe again.

This is one of my stories. Because I have written this story, it is mine. But, for me, the fact of my being twelve years old and almost dying in a canoe on the St. Croix River is not the most significant aspect of this story. What is more important is that in writing this story I learned that I had a story to tell. And that is the story I want to tell now.

It is the fall of my tenth grade year. During our month spent reading The Lord of the Flies, we write character essays. The evening before it's due, I go to work on my "Ralph" essay. I sit at my desk. I stand up. I close the door. I open my desk drawer. I look for a pen. Close my desk drawer. Look at my notebook paper. Write my name. Write the date: 10—slash—23—slash—78. Erase the date. Write October 23, 1978. Crumple the paper. Think about baseball. Think about Ralph. Go to the bathroom. Gulp water. Spit it out. Sit at my desk. Smell the heated plastic of my white lampshade.

The essay is due tomorrow. Get the book out. Where is it? Should I get Dad? No. Should I? No. Maybe later. I need to start. Write the first sentence. Rewrite it. That's better. Write it again. Okay, better. Look at the book. What else can I write? Reread the first sentence. Reread the second. Say that better. Write another sentence. Reread the first sentence. The second sentence. Begin a third sentence. Change the first sentence again. Scratch the third sentence. What can I write about Ralph? Add a fourth sentence.

Two hours pass before I try to copy the page-long essay neatly. My writing is not neat. I write "Tom Meyer" in the upper-right corner of the page and put the date below it.

A week passes before we hear anything about our essays. Miss Fieselman gets ready to read one of her favorite pieces aloud to the class. Whose work will she read? Well, okay. Dan McKeel's. Not mine. Never mine. Dan McKeel can write. She walks my essay to my desk. I can't listen. As if on tiptoe, my fingers creep around the edges of the upside-down essay. I peek as if I were nonchalant. My face flushes. A D? D! I tried. I sigh. I flush. I can't write. As she finishes Dan McKeel's essay, I kick at my army surplus backpack and ready myself to leave the room.

Another week passes. Miss Fieselman assigns another short essay. This time it's on Simon. I can't write. I'll try. I've got to try. I can't do it. I'll get my book out. I like Simon. He's nicer than Ralph anyway. I have such little confidence. I slowly produce one sentence. Another. I change the first sentence. I add a third. I read the first three sentences and change the second sentence. At last, I copy over my page-long essay. I sign my name and date my work.

A week later I see an A on my essay. I do not understand why "Simon" is an A and "Ralph" a D. I tried on both. I slide my essay into my backpack. As I stand to leave Miss Fieselman's classroom, I feel relieved but not confident.

"Mr. Meyer, please stay after class."

Eyes down, I see the other students' shoes walking away. The wooden door shuts. We are alone. Now what? I stand. I will make this quick.

Miss Fieselman is at the chalkboard. She erases one sentence. Then another. My friends are one minute gone. She does not turn around. She watches me through eyes in the back of her head. How can she freeze me and continue to write a cursive homework note on the board?

"Sit down, Mr. Meyer."

I sit. My backpack is simply an object, a hand rest for nervous hands.

My classmates are two minutes gone. Miss Fieselman turns toward me and sits down slowly.

"I am worried about you," she says and fixes her eyes on mine. "You are one of my worst five students."

Her words sit like fat clouds on a still day. Worst five students? Five?

"We need to do something about this. You are not making progress." She does not pull back her thin gray hair. She does not lean on an elbow and confide that she has known other kids who came around after hard times. She does not use sugar on her words. "You need writing work."

I can't say no. "Okay," I respond.

"We'll begin Monday at 7:25 a.m. Let's start with something that you know about."

We make a plan. I leave. I want air and lunch.

In the season that passes, I do not know how many times we meet before school. Before one of those cold morning meetings, I discover I have a story to write: a story about how I almost died in a canoe. This is a story that, with some help, I can tell others—that I want to tell to others. I want to write it so that they can feel the warmth of the Wisconsin sunshine, the panic of pounding into a rock and capsizing a canoe in cold, strangling water. And it is not just the silver canoe, the blue sky, or the churning water that I want to capture; I want to draw the rock with words. One day I find the word sessile in the thesaurus. Immovable would have been better, more clear. But sessile is mine. I found it. I'll take it. I use it and learn later how limited the thesaurus can be.

"What do you have today?" Miss Fieselman does not stall.

"Once, I almost died in a canoe. I'm writing my story of that."

"That's fine. A canoe ride," she nods. "Read it."

"Now?" I put my backpack down, ease into a wooden chair, wipe my brow, find my voice, and still my hands.

"Yes. I'm listening."

I begin to read. "Once, I almost died in canoe. A gray sessile rock hid behind a sinister carnival ride of real water cascades. Have you ever seen an eddy? Do you even know what one is? Imagine water, like a fun house, giving you the illusion of forward movement even as you travel nowhere . . ." I read on. Every once in a while, I try to peek at Miss Fieselman's face. Just wrinkles and light blue eyes. No praise. No nod.

"Stop. Read that last sentence again."

I read the sentence again and continue, slightly irritated. She interrupts again. "Read that again. Stop. That last sentence doesn't make sense to me."

Miss Fieselman hands me a yellow school pencil, "Here." I need to add a word, take another away. I change my words so that my story makes sense to Miss Fieselman. We plan. I leave. I want time to write. Instead I go to history class.

Somewhere over the course of our meetings, I begin to feel the need to write. In my mind's eye, walking to school, walking down the halls, and even while playing soccer, I am in the canoe and almost drown over and over and over again. I think about my audience—Miss Fieselman.

"Today give me the story," Miss Fieselman says one morning. She reaches across the table. I trust Miss Fieselman with my story. "Listen as I read it. Knock on the desk if you want me to stop. Knock when it doesn't make sense. Listen now."

Miss Fieselman reads. She reads my words, my story. I listen and knock as necessary. I knock words out so that my story makes sense to me. Miss Fieselman writes in the changes that I suggest.

Miss Fieselman created a lush garden in her classroom. I can still see the shiny green-and-white-striped leaves and the little white flowers of her plants. Her secret love of plants took her in and out of her teaching career. Some years she taught. In other years, she worked at the Climatron, a botanical center in south Saint Louis. In my tenth grade year, Miss Fieselman put aside nearly all of her plants in order to work with my classmates and me. She sat with me morning after morning before school started. Often she did not face me. Instead she studied the spider plants that dangled from her ceiling. Maybe she spotted brown leaves that needed pruning or sprigs that she could pinch and sprout. She probably planned transplants as she listened, as she taught.

Thank you for tending to me, Miss Fieselman; I was stuck. Thank you for giving me time to write, time to name a story that I cared about, and time to revise and edit. As I made my way down the St. Croix River and capsized week after week, you helped me hear my voice, internalize an audience, and capture words in a way that spoke to both. I can write. I can write. Thank you.

About the Author Tom Meyer is a director of the Hudson Valley Writing Project, New York. He teaches curriculum and assessment, teacher research, and literacy across the disciplines to current and future teachers enrolled in education courses at SUNY New Paltz. He also bikes a lot.

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