“Oh my God. Oh my God. OH MY GOD! This cannot be happening.”
It was the first line of Carrie Barker’s first major assignment in her first English class at Kirkwood Community College. And it steered her down a path that would change her life.
When YellowBook, USA needed to downsize in 2009, Carrie Barker voluntarily left the Cedar Rapids company. She regretted not finishing college, and after a 20-year hiatus, decided it was time to trade in a career of proof-reading textbooks and phonebooks for something different.
With plans to study interior design, Barker needed to take English Composition I for her degree. She signed up for the class taught by Heal McKnight, who changed Barker’s mind about a career in design, bringing her back around to another career focusing on the English language.
“Carrie, in her forties, came to my class ready,” said McKnight. “She was game for engaging deeply, for connecting with her classmates, and for allowing herself to believe that I was possibly right about her when I said she was smart, talented, rare and deeply admirable.”
The first major writing assignment was a creative non-fiction essay. Carrie penned, But Two Negatives Equal a Positive. After a good grade, and a little push from McKnight, she submitted it for the Norton Writer’s Prize, and won.
The Norton Writer’s Prize is a national literary award given annually for an outstanding essay composed for a writing class. It’s open to undergraduates of two- or four-year colleges and universities.
Carrie won first place in 2010, earning the top prize of $1,500. She wrote another piece, Chasing Butterflies, the following semester for McKnight’s literature class. She entered it in the 2011 Norton competition and was named runner-up, earning another $1,000.
“I felt self-conscious about writing,” said Barker. “Sharing my work was a big hurdle to overcome. It’s getting easier now, and with the help of great faculty members, and especially Heal McKnight, I hope to someday write for a career.”
Barker graduated from Kirkwood Community College this spring and transferred to the University of Iowa as an English major, with plans to turn her degree into a teaching position at a community college in the future.
“Kirkwood really became a second family to me,” added Barker. “Heal was the most engaging instructor I’ve ever had. I had a lot of good ones at Kirkwood, but I just really clicked with her. She encouraged me without my knowing it.
“Heal sort of became my mentor while at Kirkwood. I’d use her feedback to continue to push my skills forward. I’m more motivated now and she helped me realize that school was something I wanted to do, not something I had to do.”
The positive feelings are mutual between student and teacher. After having Barker in five of her courses, McKnight said Barker has a bright future in writing.
“She keeps experimenting with what and how she writes. She’s brave and willing to fail—willing to try something that, ultimately, doesn’t work out, but was a worthwhile experiment. She’s one of the very few people I know who has the muscle and heart it takes to keep writing and writing and writing, into an MFA program if that’s what she chooses, and beyond.”
“Carrie represents the best thing about teaching at a community college: brilliant people stumble into your classroom all the time, not realizing the depth of their talents or the singular awesomeness of their voices.”
Sometimes a voice gets noticed. Sometimes that can change the direction in life. Then, things start happening.