I was a poor student throughout primary and secondary school, and even in college. There was always something about the formal structure of the process of learning that never appealed to me. Perhaps it was just contrary to my nature, or maybe it was that I never quite managed to fully “catch up” after falling so far behind in my early school years due to my poor command of the English language.
Not long after my parents and I first moved to the United States from Honduras, I was placed in a kindergarten class, and I distinctly recall images of the teacher and children in the room speaking but me not able to comprehend what they were saying. They were obviously speaking in English, but I spoke only Spanish. It wasn’t traumatic exactly, but it was surreal and unnerving at the time. I quickly learned English, but it wasn’t until second grade that I recall being able to truly understand what the teacher was trying to communicate.
I cannot recall anything particularly inspirational or transformative about my formal education. I never failed a grade, and I graduated from college in four years, but I never developed a love of reading, writing, and “book learning”. I simply got by — often solely on the weight of my cleverness or natural creative abilities.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until I was in my early 20s when I went to work as a legislative correspondent on Capitol Hill for Senator Pete Domenci of New Mexico that I began to hone my writing skills and develop genuine interest in the world around me. It took me that long. But fortunately I was a quick study. I read tens of thousands of constituent letters on a wide range of issues, and I learned how to efficiently research and speedily analyze and craft thoughtful responses to them.
If I had to pick out a transformative moment in my education, it would be the day I was tasked to write a brief memo for Senator Domenici. The issue was about providing military assistance to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. I was told by the legislative director that I had one day to write the memo and provide a recommendation on how the Senator should vote and why. In other words, I had to become an expert on the subject in one day.
I spent hours researching, and all night writing the memo. The next morning, I walked into the legislative director’s office with my four-page memo. I was proud of what I had managed to accomplish in such a short time. As my boss flipped through the pages, I could see her head slowly shaking. She barely looked up at me. “Too long,” she said. “The Senator will never read through all of this. Cut it down.”
“Cut it down”? Was she kidding me? Four pages already seemed like very little to me, given the immense scope of the issue. Off I went for a second a draft.
I returned a couple of hours later with my two-page memo. Again, she scanned the work. “Still too long,” she said.
My jaw must have dropped. Keep in mind that throughout my high school and college years, I had been led to believe that the more I wrote, the better. All those 10- and 20-page term papers were suppose to have been a good thing. If I didn’t have a thorough understanding of the topic, I could at least count on getting credit for bulk.
Not anymore. In the real world, I was dealing with a new paradigm of less being better — which meant that the quality of the limited content had to be outstanding.
Two hours later, I was back with my one-pager. But it was a very full one page.
“Still too much,” she said. “The Senator will be leaving his office to vote on this issue in an hour. He’ll need to be able to read the memo, digest it, and make up his mind between the time he walks out the door, down the hallway, and gets on the elevator.”
“Half a page,” she said.
Half a page on the military and political situation in Nicaragua, the geopolitical significance of it to the US, the communist threat posed by the ruling Sandinista party, the identity of the Contras and their chances for overthrowing the Sandinistas, and a recommendation on the wisdom of aiding or not aiding the Contras.
I had one hour.
I finished my half-page memo, and it was approved. The director and I caught up with the Senator as he was walking out the door. The Senator read the memo as he was walking. He asked me a couple of questions. “Okay,” he said, as he got onto the elevator and rushed off to the Capitol.
That’s when I started to become a good writer and to develop a love for the art. All that high-priced formal education up to that point? Mostly details.