OK, I’ll admit it. Yesterday, I made Hayley cry.

She asked me to read through an essay she’d written for school, and I asked her before I did it, “Do you want me to just make corrections or can we also talk about the content? If you don’t want to hear suggestions about improvements, then I’ll stick to capitalizing and punctuation.” I’m not sure if she knew what she was getting into—not sure if she knew that I still pride myself on an award-winning writing from second grade, not sure if she knew that my typical approach is to provide three details (at least) for every point made, not sure if she knew that “Can you help me with my homework?” sessions with my Dad always ended in conflict and crying—but she agreed to the content review, and off we went.

Things went fine until we got to the following sentence fragment: “Not just with the problem I mentioned, but with all the kinds of problems that are destroying nature.” Yes, I told Hayley, there is a capital letter in the beginning of the sentence. And, yes, there is a period at the end. And, while ‘I’ is a noun and ‘mentioned’ is a verb, this is only part of a sentence and not a complete thought. How, I wondered, as she looked at me with an expression similar to the one she’d have if her balloon had just been ripped from her hand and released by her evil, uncaring excuse for a mother, who then shot down said floating balloon with a rocket-propelled grenade—how could I explain independent vs. dependent clauses to a 5th grader who was just trying to write a simple essay?

And even if I could get the clause concept across, how could I mandate that she write a complete sentence when this, her writer-mother’s blog, is probably riddled with fragments intended to ring snarky and hip? Let me tell you—I couldn’t. At least not with much authority. (See, there. A sentence fragment.) (Oops, that was another one.)

Well, as the tears rolled down Hayley’s cheeks and she said, “Dad said it was fine last night, and now you’re making all these changes,” as I saw the train lean dangerously close to the edge of the tracks, I said, “Dad was right! Your essay was fine last night! It’s still fine! And making some minor changes will make it even better! But if you want to leave it the way it is, that’s OK with me.” Then I told her, gently, that I wouldn’t be able to help her if she was crying, not because I thought she was stubborn or baby-ish, but because I felt uncomfortable helping her if it made her feel so bad that it drove her to tears.

At this point in the homework drama, I have to give Hayley credit. She left the room, wiped her eyes, and came back ready to work. We added 150 words worth of quality content to her essay (her words, not mine), and at the bus stop this morning she even volunteered to read her essay to a friend.

She learned a valuable lesson about writing that I didn’t learn until about a year ago: no matter how good you may think it is, a first draft is just that; the second draft is where the magic happens. Aside from that, Hayley may not know what a dependent clause or a sentence fragment is, but that’s OK. At least for now.

See? There I go again.


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