A Heart-Shaped Wound: Processing Life through Writing

I’m elbows-deep in my newest novel, a New Adult story. It’s heavily influenced by my experiences as a teacher in the last year–or it will be once I get it written. I best process real life events–especially those that are traumatic–through writing. I actually became an author as a result of my then-therapist suggesting that I try writing a novel; I was enveloped in agony at the time. I was in recovery for Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA). I was 38 years old nearly 20 years ago, and my mind had essentially melted, so I was in intensive therapy trying to process what I could no longer pretend had not happened. It was a messy endeavor, entrenched in loss and abandonment and grief and rage.
It took a good three months or so to pull myself out of…myself…enough to find a way to navigate the chaos in my skull. I still remember where I was: in my bedroom at my desk, staring at cork board squares affixed to the wall. What if…instead of what happened when I was 14–when I made an outcry to my mom and she did nothing about it–what if I had told a teacher and I got…help? What if I had a father who actually would have wanted me in his life, and what if I had been removed from my mom’s house and placed with this hypothetical father? At that moment, Ashley Nicole Asher was born. Patience, Texas came to be. David Asher, Ashley’s long-lost father, materialized.
I wrote the first draft of the book in roughly six months. PTSD had me dreading sleep, since every time I closed my eyes, waterfalls of flashbacks filled my head, so I only slept a few hours a night, then I would rise and type at my kitchen table until it was time to get ready to teach. I have no idea how I functioned except that my mind was processing so much shit at the time that it never shut down anyway. After I completed COURAGE IN PATIENCE, my then-therapist, Matt Jaremko (now, a couple decades later, we are co-authors of a trauma recovery book) told me that what I’d written was “really good.” And since Matt was one of the two adults I trusted in my life at the time (Daniel, my husband, being the other adult), I believed him. I found an agent, and my publishing career began.

The 2022-2023 school year has been nothing short of excruciating for me. I left one position after being bullied by parents and students after having an out-of-context photo taken by a student in class (a violation of district policy, by the way, for a student to take a photo in a classroom without permission) was posted on a community chat forum, and my teaching life spiraled into the depths of hell. I was left to swing in the wind by upper administration–who could have easily attempted to protect me since they knew I had done nothing wrong–but they refused. This was not building admin–but the powers-that-be, as they say, “‘down the street.” I was so traumatized that I broke my contract in order to save the life I fought so hard to have. The HR director even admitted they should have protected me. “We need to have a plan in place when teachers are targeted.” To which I replied, “Yes, you DO, because when this happens to the next person– and it WILL–you will continue to lose good teachers, and I AM a good teacher.”
I then left the virtual position I’d started because I missed interacting with students so much, plus, honestly, I needed higher pay. And the position I am in now, having come in mid-year, is complicated, and very little of the hard stuff actually has to do with me. I am not creating the difficulties, but I have to deal with them nonetheless. The administration in my current district is, thankfully, the antithesis of the one in my former district, but I am so cautious from my experience of being dragged for something I did not do that I am much less willing to answer questions students ask by using a visual aid if those questions have a fraction of a chance of leading to an out-of-context photo being misconstrued in any way, much less shared to social media.
That’s one thing I’ve lost in these past months: after 25 years of teaching–so long that the classroom feels like a second home to me–it’s an environment in which I typically thrive–I no longer trust that I am “home,” a place I am trusted–at least I have been in the past– and an environment that gives me the benefit of the doubt or at least allows me to explain a misunderstanding. The gift of compassion–which I naively viewed as something of a human right–was not extended to me by some in my former district. My heart has hardened in ways I wish it had not. Where I once could say, “It’s just kids. They’re not thinking,” I no longer give those who hurt me a second chance to do it again. I modify my approach. Change the way I do things. Withhold things like rewards I buy with my own money after they are stolen from me. That sort of thing. I’ve always been a very generous teacher because I love my job and that love extends to the students through my determination to make my classroom a warm, supportive, accepting place. This school year’s barbs and thorns have tested me sorely.
So I’ve decided to process this painful stuff by allowing it to inspire story. One thing I’m struggling with is what I usually tangle with when writing hard emotional scenes that I’m not quite to in the plot line: I know what I want to say, but I’m not there yet in the story. I need to skip ahead in the story line to write these scenes.
When I wrote BIG FAT DISASTER, I had a really hard time starting the novel, but I could envision the inciting incident quite clearly, and I gave myself permission to write that scene first. It was quite effective because by doing that, I got to know my characters even more and I understood their feelings, actions, and reactions so much better.
I’m to that point with this New Adult novel now: giving myself permission to skip ahead and write the parts that I need to exorcise from my soul. I need to “cast” the “school world” aspect of the story and JUST DO IT–just write the scenes that will help me process this past year. I can guarantee that what I write will not be a microscopic view of one particular setting. There is plenty of pain to go around.

Just to be clear: all authors write what they know; they are inspired by events and people and sensory elements of life such as smells and sounds and tastes since those all go to memory. My characters are composites of many people; sometimes, they are composites that include people I don’t know but wonder about. I do a lot of research. I read newspaper stories about the topics that are part of the story I’m writing. For example: if I were writing a story about a girl who was drugged and raped at a party, I would research real-life reports of this happening.
The stuff I’ve experienced in the last year as a teacher is, sadly, not unique to me. I am researching other teachers who have been targeted and it is likely some elements of their stories will be woven into the story, too.
I need to process the agony that the 2022-2023 school year has visited upon me and others in my caring profession.
Ever since people began feeling more entitled to behave badly in full view of everyone, they have spread themselves all over social media and shown who they are. Teachers, first hailed as heroes when MacGyver-ing ways to teach remotely the moment every school in the country went online, are now often eviscerated as “groomers,” among other largely untrue portrayals, and there is a teacher shortage because there are so many in my profession have had enough of the hatred, particularly since we are generally instructed to remain silent in the face of it. I *can* retire this year if I choose to, at least according to the state’s calculation of when I can retire with full benefits, but I still have so much to give. So much knowledge. Experience. A toolbox of ways to present info in a variety of ways so that children can learn. Flexibility. Organization. An ability to laugh at myself, to apologize when warranted, to model gracious behavior and what empathy and compassion look like for students who may not see much of it. When you’re essentially a non-confrontational person like I am, it’s not hard to remain silent when being metaphorically stoned by the public. Stir in Generalized Anxiety Disorder and PTSD from childhood trauma, et voilà! Welcome to Fall, 2022!

I frequently remind students that I am human, particularly when I make a mistake and they immediately point it out. I’ll say casually, gently, “I’m being particularly human today…just had a very human moment…” And the reason I do this is to (hopefully) help students remember that we are all just people walking this path at the same time on the same planet, and it’s a good thing when we can see ourselves as collection of beings in need to being accepted where we are, who we are, as we are, and extend grace and mercy to each other.

At the same time, I hold students accountable the way college will, if they go, and the way the real world will, no matter what situation they are in. In my class, plagiarism results in a zero. College will have a much more serious consequence than a zero. Better to learn it now than then. I follow the school rules. It’s part of prepping kids for life beyond the school walls, i.e. we are all expected by society to follow the rules for phones the airline stewards tell us before the flight and when TSA says we have to empty our pockets, remove our hats and belts, and take our shoes off when we go through security. People on the plane who yell, “I have a bomb!”–even when they don’t and they were “joking”– can expect to spend some time with the Homeland Security folks. Self-control is a good thing to have, and it’s okay to practice it in school environments, too. When I am working in an environment where kids are not used to following the rules, it’s a challenging day, every day.
I do not know how successful I am at any of this heart-shaped-teaching-thing any more. I put my heart into what I do and I care about my students deeply and I care about holding myself to high standards for the way I teach. Until I figure out a better way to process it when I fail others or they fail me because we treat fellow humans as “other” rather than as human, I’ll put it into written words. The world may never see the black-and-white wounds disguised as letters forming sentences, but by writing it out, it’ll at least be out of my head, and maybe—just maybe—I can exorcise them from my soul, too.

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