Saturday, March 25, 2017

Hope, Heart, and Making a Difference

The original cover 
Here's the thing about being a teacher: You're the one left behind. I'm not talking about pay structure or professional status, I'm talking about being left behind by the students. 

Each year teachers ready their classroom, prepare their strategies, devise fresh ways to enrich the curriculum and seed knowledge, then greet a whole new crop of kids, who for nine months will grow stronger and smarter with the care and feeding of considered education. And then, in a buzz of summer break excitement, those students will dash out the door, and out of your life. And you will likely never have a definitive answer to the question all teachers ask themselves: Did I make a difference?

I know this because I did this cycle for fifteen years.

I didn't teach at the cuddle-kid level, where intrinsic rewards can come in spurts of little hugs and tearful goodbyes. I taught high school. Semester courses. Six of them each semester for fifteen years. Somewhere between 28-33 kids per class. Let's call it an average of 30 k/cl. 

When I multiply 6 x 30 x 2 x 15, I get 5,400 students. Some of these took  more than one of my courses, so let's just round down and say approximately 5,000 kids came through my classroom during my tenure as a teacher. I poured my heart and soul into making school fun and educational, into making kids feel like my room was a safe haven--a place they belonged. I ran myself ragged in the pursuit of excellence, especially after I became a mom. I was on my feet all day and lost weight to a point where people thought I was anorexic. I wasn't, I just wasn't taking care of myself the way I was taking care of everything else. 

The new cover
And at the end of fifteen years, I looked back and wondered ... had it been worth it? 

Had I made a difference?

Because, really, that's the reason we teach.

My novel Runaway had been an idea long before it became a book. And the reason it took me so long to begin writing it was because I didn't know how to end it (and I won't start a book unless I have an ending in mind). 

In case you're not familiar with Runaway, it's the journal of Holly Janquell, a girl who runs away from bad foster care shortly after her teacher, Ms. Leone, gives her a journal in an effort to help Holly "turn the page." 

Suddenly, Holly's gone.

And Ms. Leone has no idea what's become of her troubled student. 

I had the basic plot for the book. And I knew where I was going, just not how to end it.

And then one day I was out on a run and the idea for how to end the book hit me like a bolt of lightning. I know exactly where it happened. No, the earth isn't charred there, but it did get sprinkled. The idea hit me so hard that I stopped in my tracks, gasped at the emotion of it, then started crying. Right there in the middle of my run, I got all weepy and overwhelmed and, you know, spastic. 

Because if what happens at the end of Runaway were to have happened to me as a teacher, I would have bawled my eyes out. In the very best, happiest of ways. 

And no, I'm not going to spoiler it here!

Runaway was first published in 2006. The reason I'm bringing all this up now is twofold: 

First, authors experience a thing similar to teachers. We write stories, they go out into the world and we have no idea if the story we poured our heart and soul into has had its intended effect. Did readers understand what you were trying to say? Did they feel it in their heart? Did it make them think? 

The teacher letter
Did it make a difference to anyone? 


Because, really, that's the reason we write. 

I have gotten some beautiful, heartfelt letters from teen readers over the years. But this week, eleven years after Runaway went out into the world, I got a letter from a teacher. (See sidebar.) What he wrote made me weepy-happy because it tells me that yes, he understood. Yes, he felt it. And yes, it made a difference.

The second reason I'm bringing this up now is because we have finally completed the Runaway book trailer. Faithful readers of this blog know that it's been in the works for, what? Eight or nine months? Introducing a trailer after a book has been out for so long is not normally done, but we wanted to do something to celebrate the new cover and help Runaway find new readers. Not that a 90 second trailer should take nine months, but when you watch it, you'll better understand why it did. (Yes, that's the Los Angeles River.) (Oh. And a little trivia: The place where you'll see Holly in the bushes writing in her journal? The path right beside it is where I had my stop-in-the-trail moment.)

So, I will link to the trailer, but before I do, I have a request: Sometime soon, tell the teachers who have made a difference in your life that you appreciate them, and why. This is not hard. They are out there. Teachers love Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. Find them. Post to their wall. Send a direct message. Something. It may be just what they need to find the strength to go on in their career. 

And while you're at it, tell your parents. Or your kids. Tell the people who matter that they matter, and why. 

Because, really, that's what we all live for.

And now, here's the RUNAWAY TRAILER. Please share it with your friends and colleagues. Please send light and love out for others to catch. This story is all about hope and heart and making a difference. Help it find its way to the people who need it. 

As always, thanks for stopping by. See you in the comments!


Kylie said...

I went to my first teaching job fair today and the first thing I noticed is that there is a lot of passionate people in the field. From future teachers, to staff, to administrators people genuinely care about the students and it was such an amazing feeling to me. I had one lady today tell me about this seventh grade class and how amazing they are and how they are hoping to find them a really great teacher. She was telling me about individual students in the grade and what they were doing and going on and on before she stops and says, "And I am just the Administrative Assistant! You should hear what their current teachers have to say!" I could feel the passion that she had for supporting these students, it was amazing! I tried to show my teachers how thankful I was for them, but it was harder with those that I was not as close to. But it is my love seeing my past teachers because they always remember me and ask how I am doing. I know that they care and I just hope that they understand me when I say how much I appreciate what they taught me.

I love the trailer! It feels so real, like I am following the actual Holly around. I think students are going to intrigued by it, I really do. Also I love how Runaway is written and is it paved road in the letters or am I seeing things?

Thank you for the heartfelt post every week. They always make me stop and appreciate my life and those in it.

I truly hope you all have a splendid week.


Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Hi, Kylie! What a great report from your first teaching job! It's good to stick close to the ones who love the kids - they do help lift you up and get you through the day.

I love your observations about the trailer - that it feels like we're with Holly, and the paved road in the letters! I hadn't made that association, but now I'm going to tell people that's exactly the intended symbolism :-)

More soon. Enjoy the rest of your week!

Shaina said...

I have been out of town for a few weeks and I'm catching up on your blog--I love reading it! Thank you for offering such pithy posts. I don't have time or words to really do this post justice in a lame comment, but thank YOU for your work as a teacher and a writer, and thank you for putting these thoughts out there. My husband is a teacher (high school French in an 85% hispanic community) and I feel a kinship to your words. And I loved Runaway. It made me cry too.

Mike said...

Thanks for bringing so much light into the world. I always liked how you rooted for the underdog even back in your St. Joe days. I read the Running Dream last year and I could hear Sark's voice yelling at the girl. You and Sark always believed the best in us and allowed yourselves to be vulnerable. I have taught for smbsd for 14 years now, and my intention is always to lead with the heart like that. It is such a small world how we are all connected. When I saw that you said a couple of weeks ago to thank your teachers I had to reach out and thank you. I remember the lecture you gave in the gym when you talked about your chemical business and running the fans to dry the stucco, and always be persistent. That has always resonated with me. I am so happy for you and all your success.
Take care,
Mike Muscio

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Shaina: Your comment is NOT lame! It's appreciated very much. Also, teaching French in a largely Hispanic community has got to be a unique, fascinating experience. Did you know Sammy Keyes became "Sara Kay" in the French translations? The artwork makes her look older, and like an angry Nancy Drew.

Wendelin Van Draanen said...

Mike Muscio! How nice of you to leave a comment :-) Thank you for what you said. I laughed at the part about Sark. I will be meeting up with him soon and will share your comment with him. He will get a big kick out of it, I'm sure. If you've been leading with the heart for 14 years at smbsd, I'm sure your students will come back and tell you how you impacted their lives. (It may take 15 years, but it's worth waiting for!) So glad to hear you've found your calling. Thank you for taking time to write!

Shaina said...

BAHAHAHA, Sammy is so much more than an angry Nancy Drew, but that is a hilarious description!! I found your post about book translations fascinating. And yes, my husband has some fun stories. He has learned just enough Spanish to use at parent teacher conferences, but he speaks it with an undeniable French accent, which is hilarious.