I taught school for six years before I had my daughters. Elementary. I went wherever the principal needed me–first grade twice, second grade twice, and fourth grade twice, never back to back. No matter. I loved them all. We bought a house close to the school because I’m not fond of driving. Maybe not a wise choice, because teachers had to stay after school a half hour after the students left the building. Often, when I drove home, a student or two would be sitting on my front steps. Now, I loved my students, but not two minutes after I left the building. But do you know what? My husband would cook pancakes for whichever ones showed up at our house on Saturday mornings. And then they’d sit around our kitchen table and help me grade papers:) That’s what happens when you live too close to where you teach.
I meant to go back to teaching after my younger daughter was in school full days. But life interferes. Indiana changed its laws so that teachers no longer needed a master’s degree before they signed their sixth contract. They didn’t need a master’s degree at all, so no one would hire me. I was more expensive than the new, fresh-out-of-college teachers, so I was out of a job. My principal tried to get me back in his building, but no luck.
I could feel sorry for myself, but I don’t. If I’d have taught, I’d have never started writing. And guess what? I love that just as much, maybe more. So maybe Fate pushed me in a new direction to make me happy. Who knows? But there are students who will stick in my mind for forever. A few, because they were so awesome, so shiny, so fun, so sweet. But some? Because to this day, I wonder if they found a good life, if they’re happy. I’ve told my husband that teachers should be allowed to put tiny chips under the skins of kids they worry about, so that we can check on them after they graduate, after they’ve lived life a while. But only if things turned out well for them. Because if life treated them worse than it already had when they were six or ten, I don’t want to know.
This blog isn’t about education, so all that I’ll say on that subject is that I’m pretty sick of politicians beating up teachers. I think they’re getting a raw deal. But this blog is about writing…or anything that makes me think about it. So this time, thinking of kids I taught made me think about developing characters in our stories. Certain kids stuck with me because they either amazed me or made me worry about them, sometimes both.
I taught Richie in first grade. He was one of twelve children with another on the way. He wandered. He never got to school on time, because he walked up and down streets and alleys before his feet led him to my classroom. He always wore hand-me-downs that didn’t fit. His mind wandered as far as his feet did. He couldn’t concentrate. He drifted. And to this day, I think about him. Another student, Geoff, refused to interact at school in any way. He loved to learn, though. Finally, I asked him why he didn’t want to make any friends or plug in, and he said that every time he started liking a school, his parents moved. They moved a month after he started liking our classroom. A girl in second grade walked up to my desk and informed me that she didn’t have to study and get good grades, because she’d won two beauty pageants and pretty girls didn’t need to be smart. I told her that in my class, pretty girls who didn’t do homeowork didn’t have recess; and she found out she was lots smarter than she gave herself credit for.
Those students stuck with me because they were unique, but I could identify with them. That’s the same thing authors need to do with characters. One way or another, readers need to care about them.
They need to have traits that appeal to us and flaws that make us worry about them. They need to be real.