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June 12, 2009

This Wonderful Life: Creative skills reap benefits beyond the arts

I know it’s hard to believe by looking at me now, but I was once a shy, bookish, unathletic child. And by ``hard to believe,’’ I mean ``it’s hard to believe things could have been any other way.’’

It wasn’t easy, especially in school, where physical and athletic prowess went much farther in determining social status than the fact that you had read every one of the ``Chronicles of Narnia,’’ back-to-back over the course of only 10 weeks. Somehow, that little accomplishment didn’t hold much sway in a game of dodge ball or Red Rover.

You never heard: ``Watch out for Elizabeth. Get close to her on the field, and she’ll open up a can of Judeo- Christian hero archetypes...’’ Even teachers could be guilty of favoring students whose athletic skills outshone their academic dedication. Perhaps the schools I attended in Virginia and Florida were unique in that regard; I’m sure that kind of favoritism never happens here.

My school life — and my opinion of school in general — were saved by a few teachers who valued and nurtured my love of words and creative expression. In fifth grade, my teacher, Ms. Phetteplace, assigned the class an exercise in writing a descriptive paragraph.

I can’t recall exactly what I described, but I will never forget the praise she wrote in the top margin after grading it. ``Very creative! You are an excellent writer!’’

It’s not an understatement to say that her encouragement changed my life.

Many creative types can tell similar stories. My friend Jeannine, who writes a beautiful column for another local paper, shared this story with me: It was the first day of eleventh grade. We had a new English teacher. I loved English. I loved writing. Nothing was more exciting than pouring over a thesaurus, replacing all the common words of my compositions with words that were big and flowery and impressive. It was technique that had earned me many a ``A’’.

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