Sunday, August 29, 2010
My "Ms Leone" Letter
So many incredible, wonderful, big things have happened to me this year, but there’s one seemingly little thing that I hold nearest and dearest. I got a “Ms. Leone” letter. For those of you who haven’t read Runaway, let me explain. Holly Janquell is almost thirteen, living a tortured life, moving from one foster care situation to another, withdrawing or acting out, and hating the world. In an effort to help her, her teacher, Ms. Leone, gives Holly a journal with the well-intentioned advice that writing in it might help her to “turn the page.” Well, Holly thinks Ms. Leone is completely out to lunch. What good is writing when she’s having to deal with people “sani-flushing” her head in a toilet? So at first Holly’s journal entries are just angry rants at Ms. Leone. But after Holly runs away, she starts “talking” to Ms. Leone through the journal, relating her near scrapes and scavenging adventures as she travels across the country toward the coast in her quest to become a “sea gypsy.” The journal becomes Holly’s lifeline and her therapy. She learns to express herself and sort through her emotions, and even tries her hand at poetry. And in the end (spoiler alert!) when she’s in a safe home and has learned to trust again, she decides to send the journal to Ms. Leone with a note saying that she wanted to thank her for helping her turn the page. I had the idea for Runaway for years before I hit on how I wanted to end it. And when I thought of the ending, I got all emotional and weepy and just…overwhelmed. I’m sure that’s partly because I’d been a classroom teacher for fifteen years and receiving a letter like that from a student like Holly would definitely be overwhelming. Teachers put so much into their students, so much into helping them through that year of growth and discovery. Then the kids move on, and that’s it. Off they go, like birds from the nest. My “Ms. Leone” letter didn’t come from one of the many students who’ve fluttered through my classroom. Oh, I’ve gotten really nice notes over the years, and compliments on the positive influence I had in their lives. But that’s not a Ms. Leone letter. It hasn’t traveled through the depths of despair to reach me. My Ms. Leone letter came via e-mail from college student who happened upon Runaway in the library. She finished it in a night, and the letter she wrote me afterwards explained that terrible things had happened in her life and that, like Holly, she uses writing as a form of coping, but that she still has times when she considers ending it all. Reading Runaway, she said, gave her a sense of hope that maybe a good life is out there for her as well, and she signed off by saying, “Know that your work not only inspires, but saves lives.” So yes, Rob Reiner’s made a wonderful film out of my book Flipped. Yes, I’ve got red-hot irons in the fire. But the thing that means the most to me is my “Ms. Leone” letter. None of the “glory” even compares.