I want to give a giant shout out to Mr. Kapanka, my high school English teacher, for having a conversation with me that changed my life. He had instructed the class to create an original fiction story and I, of course, waited until the night before it was due to start it. I closed myself away in the basement of our parsonage in Cedar Falls, Iowa, and became one with the old typewriter my dad used to type out his sermon outlines.
I wasn’t a big reader, so I didn’t really know where to start. So I created some characters I thought would be believable – like the kids I knew from school – and just went from there. Once I got rolling, I felt as if something took over. Words flowed line by line as the story unfolded in my mind. I had the sensation that I was dictating a story that already existed in some other galaxy and my heart was finally able to transcribe it. I emerged from the basement a few hours later holding my story, entitled “The Mystery of a Hero.” I felt both exhausted and exhilarated that I had completed the assignment on time and had been touched by the thrill of inspiration.
A couple days later, Mr. Kapanka asked me to stay after class for a moment. He was trying to be careful with his words as he held my story in his hands. Here’s sort of how the conversation went…
Mr. K: “Emily, where did you get the idea for this story?”
Emily: “I don’t know… I just thought of it.”
Mr. K: “Seriously. Who helped you?”
Emily: “Umm…. what do you mean?”
Mr. K: “Come on, Emily. Do you expect me to believe that you just thought of this story without any help?”
Suddenly it dawned on me. He thought I had plagiarized my English assignment! I could feel my heart swelling up into my throat in panic, wondering how I could prove my innocence. But while I turned white, I think maybe the look of surprise on my face told him that I wasn’t lying.
He analyzed my face then looked at my manuscript and said something I will never, ever forget… “This is REALLY good. If you wrote this, you have a gift. Do you realize that?”
I didn’t realize that. My parents told me I was good, but I was convinced that they liked my work because they were sweet, supportive parents. Maybe they were seeing with “parent-colored glasses.” But Mr. Kapanka was neutral. His opinion mattered to me. Plus, he read classic literature and smart stuff that I knew nothing about at that point.
That conversation changed everything for me. Although it took me years to call myself a writer, an underpaid high school English teacher named Tom Kapanka gave me the confidence to keep writing! He also gave me my first deadline. Today, countless deadlines later, I still go back to that moment as a turning point in my young, impressionable life.
I’ve tried to Google him to thank him but I can’t find him. Surely he is out there somewhere. If you know a Tom Kapanka who lived in Waterloo, Iowa, during the mid-eighties, please send him this link! I wish so much that he could understand just how important that one conversation was to me and how weighted his words were in my mind.
After that conversation, not only did I view my love for words in a different light… I began to understand that doubt can be the start of unwavering belief.