My life changed for good in the seventh grade. One bit of advice not only transformed my future but also how I would view myself for years to come.
As I sat in my seventh grade English class at San Francisco’s Marina Junior High, my mind was somewhere else. I was in a new world and not liking it much. My years at Winfield Scott Elementary were a breeze characterized by kickball games, dodging seagulls at lunch time and class trips to the Palace of Fine Arts that stood two blocks away. Then came seventh grade with lockers, gym class and a different level of academic requirements. I rapidly found out that I couldn’t bluff my way through it and was beginning to flounder.
“Class, I want to read an essay.”
Swell, I thought. Here comes my English teacher, Mr. Zolezzi, with another example of something I can’t do.
I zoned out. Until I didn’t. He was reading my essay. Other kids were listening and actually enjoying it. This was new.
“Now that is a great essay. Where is Jon? Jon, keep it up. You are a really good writer and you should pursue it.”
Right there, right then everything changed for me. Mr. Zolezzi asked me to stay after class and I experienced something I hadn’t before in my previous six years of schooling – positive reinforcement. He walked me through my essay, explained to me why it was a good one and suggested I look for ways to continue to write.
The next day, I volunteered to write for our school paper – The Penguin – and asked my parents for a typewriter (how quaint) for my upcoming birthday. I wrote stories about everything I could think of, including our school’s basketball team and record reviews. Just like that my grades in English and other related subjects rocketed from C’s to A’s. I was interested. I was confident. I was proud. I also began to read voraciously so I could see how other people constructed stories.
From there, I went on to become editor of The Pendulum at Galileo High School and sought out Advanced Placement English classes. I won awards for my writing and reporting. I covered all things sports and music and even took on San Francisco issues, such as crime on the Muni bus system. Soon, it became time to choose a major and I naturally picked journalism. I often joked that writing “was the only thing I could do” and that wasn’t far from the truth. It became even more apparent it was a real strength when my chosen university, San Jose State and its award-winning journalism department, allowed me into an honors-level English program as a freshman. I gleefully accepted the senior-level program as it allowed me to bypass all math classes – a nemesis since basic elementary school addition and subtraction.
My experience at State was a great one. I was writing for an award-winning paper, covering the NCAA-bound Spartan basketball team, sharing drinks with John Elway’s dad when he coached the Spartan football program that I also covered, partying with musicians when I shifted over to the entertainment beat and graduating with nearly a perfect academic record in my major. That allowed me to cover SJSU football games for Associated Press, and it propelled me to a job at the San Jose Mercury News post-graduation.
Ultimately, I decided to give public relations a try when the newspaper industry experienced one of its first downturns. I figured, “hey, I can write, why not?” as I tore the public relations section out of Yellow Pages and went on a job search that would eventually lead me to McGrath/Power. Thirty-two years later, I own the agency. And I still love writing.
My journey – and the advice I was given that propelled me forward – has given me a keen appreciation for well-written anything. I don’t care if it is a Tweet or a novel. The ability to capture one’s attention and imagination via the written word is still critical in our short attention span society, but not as present as it once was. Every day I see continuing evidence that writing is quickly becoming a lost art. The reasons for this are many, and I won’t belabor them here. However, it is paramount that a stronger focus on writing is required, whether that be in schools or in technology communications. There is no better place to start than with teachers like Mr. Zolezzi who are on the front lines and have the ability to identify young talent and encourage it. Parents also have a huge role in this as I saw with mine via the aforementioned gift of a typewriter following my advice from Mr. Zolezzi.
When I come home to My Three Sons, I leave the math homework assistance to my wife but jump right in when any of the boys has a writing assignment. My oldest, Harrison, and one of his brothers, Mason, are showing a budding ability to put pen to paper (Mason’s twin – Jackson – is like my wife and prefers to use the right side of his brain, making him far better at math than I ever could be). When they get done reading their story out loud as a final step before we are done with the homework, Harrison and Mason always ask me how I liked it. More times than not, I genuinely do. As I begin to respond, I find myself thinking back to that foggy day in San Francisco as I sat in Mr. Zolezzi’s seventh grade English class…
“Now that is a great story. Keep it up. You are a really good writer and you should pursue it.”
I really, really hope they do.
Thanks, Mr. Zolezzi, wherever you are, for the best advice I have ever received.