NEWTON FALLS, Mass. It’s the middle of August, and the thoughts of youngsters–and their parents–have turned towards the first anxious days of school. “It can be really traumatic,” says Marilyn Elgar, who has seen three of her children begin their formal education at Tony Conigliaro Elementary School in this high-achieving suburb where many young people won’t finish their schooling for another two decades. “If your child doesn’t get off on the right foot, he or she might not end up at a Big Four Accounting Firm like me,” says her husband Oliver, who has not one but two programmable calculators hanging from holsters on his belt.
And so the Elgars have hired a writing coach to help their youngest, Tyler, a precocious eight-year-old, handle the first-day assignment that so many second-graders stumble over, setting the stage for a lifetime of professional failure, low-earnings, substance abuse and divorce: the “What-I-Did-Over-My-Summer-Vacation” essay, which in many competitive school districts can count for half of a child’s grade in “Language Arts,” whatever that is.
The Elgars sit nervously while Tyler presents his first draft to Emily Niederhofer, a blond whose hair has been styled in the pageboy fashion favored by her favorite writer, Sylvia Plath, who grew up one town over in Wellesley, Mass.
“So . . .” Niederhofer begins as she scans the opening paragraph with a gimlet eye. “You went to camp?”
“Um-hmm,” Tyler says as he wipes a booger on his pant leg, to the dismay of his mother who hands him a tissue.
“Don’t you think a lot of other children went to camp too?” Niederhofer asks.
“Yes, but my dad told me to write what I know,” the boy says as his attention drifts away to the green lawn outside Niederhofer’s office window, where he wishes he could be at this moment.
Niederhofer gives the boy a patronizing smile, then glares at his father. “That’s the oldest saw in the writer’s tool shed,” she fairly snaps. “And it’s getting pretty rusty.”
The father is taken aback, but not by the harshness of the criticism; he’s used to it after ushering Tyler’s elder siblings through the rite of passage. What’s jarring to an observer is instead the fact that Niederhofer is herself only eleven years old, a “rising” fifth grader this fall, but one who’s in demand because of the high grades she has received on her back-to-school essays for three straight years.
“Emily’s the best, no doubt about it,” says Danielle Overshinski, whose daughter Chloe was transformed from a middling observer of her childhood summers to one whose essay was given a gold star and pinned to the corkboard at the front of the classroom across town at Mosi Tatupu Middle School last fall. “She gets the kids to take a step back and use a broader lens so they can put the loss of a pet turtle in perspective next to a Chilean mudslide that wipes out thousands.”
For the Elgars, that critical approach means a few moments of discomfort as they watch Niederhofer tear their son’s work to shreds before their eyes. “Do you realize how many of your classmates went to camp this summer?” she hisses in an unforgiving tone as Tyler squirms in his seat.
“That’s right. So you have to dive down into the deep end of your soul, and come up with the thing–the one unique and miraculous moment–that separated your camp experience from everyone else’s.”
Tyler scans his memory and rejects as themes a tough day in a canoe, a skit that was panned by campfire critics, and the shedded skin of a dead snake that he found along with four other boys on a nature hike.
“I know!” he says, brightening visibly as he picks up his pencil and begins to scribble on a Big Chief lined tablet that the writing guru keeps handy for just such moments of inspiration.
“What is it sweetie?” his mother asks gently, hoping not to disturb the muse that has jump-started her son’s imagination.
“One day at lunch I was sitting in the mess hall and Richard Lyle came over with his tray and took one bite of the tuna noodle casserole and vomited it all over,” the boy says.
The parents look at Niederhofer to judge her reaction. The young writing instructor tilts her head for a moment like the dog in the old RCA Victor ads, as if hearing a sound at a frequency pitched too high for non-creative types like those before her to hear.
“That’s . . . good,” she says finally, and the parents are visibly relieved. “Let’s work with that!”