Holly Marie Hearl brings a lot of life experience to MTSU. A nontraditional student, she has, among other things, served in the Navy and worked as a cook in a restaurant. Her literacy narrative essay “’Kiss My Wookie!’: The Quote that Changed It All” was created for her English 1010 class. Enjoy!!!
“Kiss My Wookie!”
The Quote that Changed It All
My relationship with writing throughout my school years can be described as tumultuous and chronically abysmal. I have so few memories of writing in school that I can only conclude that writing must have been a traumatic exercise and I’ve blocked the majority of it out. Most of what I can recall of my formative writing experiences were related to creative projects, with a few spectacular failures and accidental successes mixed in. Of the few isolated incidents that come to mind, all took place within the span of my junior and senior years, in one classroom that belonged to Mrs. Penny Baril. Mrs. Baril taught multiple levels of English at Montville High School in Montville, Connecticut until she retired in 2015. I had the pleasure and pain of being her student two years in a row from 1999-2001. I learned almost from day one of junior year that writing essays was a very important part of her classes and accounted for a large part of her students’ grades. I also learned that writing was not my strong suit, and this was a constant source of stress, fear, and self-doubt.
Mrs. Baril’s classroom was the last room on the right in the back hallway lined with the 300 block of lockers, before crossing the double doors into the Language Hall. Her room had a wall of windows that looked out over an abandoned baseball diamond. All the desks were arranged together in a giant horse shoe that faced a wall with three dusty chalkboards and a tattered projection screen. Her desk was tucked into the back-left corner of the room between two filing cabinets and was always covered in organized chaos. A small desk lamp highlighted the disarray. The pen and paper littered center of the desk, surrounded by haphazard piles of paperwork. Odd sized notebooks leaning against stacks of books, and three coffee cups, two of which were filled with colorful pens and pencils. Mrs. Baril was tall, with long red hair that never seemed tamed and had a firm alto voice. She was an eccentric, peace and love hippie who claimed to hate country music, but loved Garth Brooks. She took teaching writing seriously, but wasn’t by nature a serious person. Even though Mrs. Baril was the most challenging teacher for me, due to all the essay writing her classes required, I consider her my favorite. Her classes may have been hard, but she never saw me and my struggle with writing as a lost cause.
I spent most of my junior year in Mrs. Baril’s class trying to get a firm grasp on my writing skills. It seemed like I was writing an essay every week, sometimes two. Every time a writing assignment came around, I did my best to meet the requirements only to fall drastically short of the mark. By the time the holidays arrived I was disheartened. I wondered how I was going to pass her class by the end of the year. I was frustrated about my poor grades on the essays I turned in and the anxiety that built up before each writing project only seemed to hinder me, making any preparations I made useless. I know I would not have passed her class that year without the few creative writing projects and the group presentations that were part of the finals for each semester. I had failed the essay on the summer reading day one and barely passed the essay portion of the midterm. The handful of essays between were a sad bunch of C’s and D’s. The semester after the holidays went a bit better and I managed to get my first A paper in her class. It was one of those happy accidents, when the essay was based on a topic I could choose. I was being a total smart ass and wrote an essay on How to write an Essay. Even with my small improvements I only passed junior year with a C and it was hard won. So, imagine my joy when I learned she would be my College AP English teacher senior year.
With the emotionally crippling news that Mrs. Baril would once again be subjecting me to a year of writing misery, I felt a bit like Sisyphus. My metaphorical boulder was another year of fighting to get passing grades on my writing assignments. The summer reading for junior year had been a dry and numbingly boring novel called The Captains and the Kings and it was the only book required. For senior year, I was pleasantly surprised to find a good variety of books to choose from on the summer reading list for Mrs. Baril’s class. I chose a book that appealed to me on multiple levels, Star Wars: The Courtship of Princess Leia. It had action, and adventure, and romance. It was a guaranteed good read and made the nerd in me happy too. It was a great book and I enjoyed reading it. I found that because I enjoyed the story and became emotionally invested, it was much easier for me to prepare for writing the essay. I could bring two 3×5 notecards to class, with thoughts and quotes, to help me with my essay. I prepared like I’d never prepared before. I re-read the book, took multiple pages of notes, and filled my two notecards with so much information I could have written two essays with them.
I was determined to start my senior year in Mrs. Baril’s class with an A on my summer reading essay. I wanted that A on not just an academic level, but a personal one as well. I wanted to prove that my writing skills had improved over the summer. I showed up to class with a sense of confidence and purpose. I had my notecards, my book, and a heart full of optimism. Mrs. Baril greeted me with a warm smile filled with encouragement when I walked into class. Pulling me aside she asked, “Are you prepared for your essay?” For the first time, I could say yes to her. “Yes!” I replied excitedly. “I really liked the book I chose. It was filled with action and romance.” She smiled at me as I rushed on. “It was so funny. My favorite line in the book was when Han Solo yelled “Kiss my Wookie!” at Warlord Zsinj during a huge space battle!” At this the smile faded from her face and she looked at me in confusion. “Holly, what book did you read?” “I read The Courtship of Princess Leia.” I replied. Mrs. Baril looked at me in alarm and then said the worst possible thing she could have to me. “That book wasn’t on this year’s summer reading list. That was on last year’s list.”
You know that tingly feeling of dread that crawls up your spine to the back of your head when something catastrophic happens or you get caught in a lie and know the wrath of your parents is about to descend? At first you get flushed and hot, then suddenly break into a clammy sweat, and a mass of dread presses your chest in with certain doom. I felt that and more. Panic, devastation, abject terror. The blood drained from my face and my heart started flying in my chest. Eyes wide in shock I couldn’t focus on anything. My breathing was short and choppy. My throat tightened, and my eyes started filling with tears of frustration. I had done everything right this time around. I had done the work and really thought about what I needed to take away from my summer reading so I could write the best essay I could. It seemed that the universe didn’t care that I was trying my hardest to start my senior year off on a positive note. All the preparations had been for nothing, it seemed. Mrs. Baril helped me to her chair. “I swear, Mrs. Baril, I read a book from the list I got in the mail.” I cried. Reaching into my back pack, I pulled my copy of The Courtship of Princess Leia out, which had the list folded up as a book mark. I handed the paper to her. “This is the list I got.” I whispered thickly. “What am I going to do now?” I wondered aloud. “How am I supposed to write an essay on a book I didn’t read?”
Mrs. Baril handled the problem with much more grace than I did. While I was busy freaking out and preparing myself for yet another abject failure, she was head first, and wrist deep in one of her filing cabinet drawers. With a shout of triumph, she walked back to me, and crouched to eye level with me. “It’s ok.” She started. “It’s not your fault you got the wrong summer reading list in the mail. I am not going to give you a F for your essay. Here.” She placed a sheet of paper in front of me. As my blurry vision cleared I read the essay question on the sheet and at the top of the page was The Courtship of Princess Leia Essay Question. “It’s a good thing I never throw anything away!” Mrs. Baril laughed lightly. I wrote my essay that day with breathless joy and tear tracks on my face. I smiled the entire time I was penning thoughts to that piece of paper. I remember it being the most effortless essay I had written up to that point. I got an A+ on that essay and came to a profound realization. I learned that I can write and be successful if I invest myself, and find something enjoyable to focus on.
I don’t recall if I ever thanked Mrs. Baril for the massive amount of time she spent on me junior and senior year. I know that while my writing improved greatly over the course of senior year, I only got one more A paper. Looking back on all the writing assignments I did over those two years, I found a pattern. All the essays and projects that I scored the highest on were related to creative writing and subjects that I was personally interested in. I was captured in the experience of using my creativity to write about something I was emotionally invested in. Writing creatively was, for me, the key in being a successful writer. I had finally found my niche, my voice, in the open and unfiltered lawless realm of creative writing. I found I could immerse myself with limitless possibilities and no boundaries on what and how I could write. I carried this knowledge into the rest of my writing senior year and it has grown into a hobby that enjoy to this day.
In addition to an essay, a graphic novel page featuring the climax of the literacy narrative was created as part of the English assignment. Said Ms. Hearl, “I really had no idea how to approach designing a graphic novel page. On my best days, I’m not what someone would deem tech savvy…. I downloaded a dozen picture and collage apps on my phone, … [but] no one app could manage to do everything I needed…. I didn’t want to just settle for a basic page with pictures that didn’t inspire me. I finally had to settle with a multi-step process where I found my pictures and even staged a few photos myself. I then ran them through one of the apps for the filter I wanted and assembled the pictures in another app in the configuration that I had envisioned…. Once I had a system in place, I enjoyed the creative aspect of it.”