Thursday, April 2, 2020

More Than a Weirdo

I’ve been thinking about my mental health a lot lately. I always think about it a good bit. At least I do since the spring of 2005 when I realized it wasn’t something to take for granted.

This latest iteration of self-reflection comes from an effort at my new church to start some sort of spiritually based mental health program. They put out a call for interested parties. I’m interested. Or I was before social distancing shut down that sort of thing. And I will be when the church building reopens after all of this is over.

Notably, mental health programming was one of the reasons I left the old church for the new one.

My community had two teens at the local high school that died by suicide in a period of nine months. And the little church, my old church, sensed a need for some response. I’m always thinking I’m being called to something. People are still called to things these days, aren’t they? It could have been that I was called to help a mental health ministry start in the wake of these tragedies.

So I talked to the little church, my old church, and explained my own mental health struggles which were known but never really discussed. We’re all white people. We don’t usually talk about uncomfortable things. But we did talk then and when all had been shared, psych ward experience and all, that little church, my old church, said, “wow, you don’t even seem like a weirdo. No offense, but you know what I mean.”

I laughed. Ha, ha. 

“Thank you for the compliment of saying I’m not a weirdo in spite of my major flaw of having succumbed to psychosis in the past,” I said. 

Not really, but I did laugh. And I didn’t say, how dare you or that’s really offensive. I just did what we do and took the discomfort so the little church, my old church, could feel comfortable.

Woman in a silly hat with eyes crossed looking at a snow covered branch.
Is this someone you'd call weird?

It didn’t end there because soon the little church announced its mental health program. It was not Mental Health First Aid Training or a study on the impact of biblical language on mental illness stigma. Those things “attract a certain sort of person,” I was told. 

No, the little church chose a palatable program. You Are Not Alone or You Matter or Insert Meaningless Platitude it was called. The little church stood up and announced that this was a program for everyone. “This is not for weirdos,” they said. Everyone gets a little sad sometimes, they said. We’re not going to do anything to welcome those weirdos to our little church, they said.

Perhaps I was being called. But not to mental health programming at that little church.
Large church tower photographed from ground level with clear blue sky background.
I'm not exaggerating when I call it "the big church."

I didn’t leave then, not physically. But I was already reading the sermons from the big church, my new church. And this weirdo had a sneaking suspicion she’d be more welcome there.

When all my little church commitments were fulfilled, I switched to the big church. My husband and I had an exit interview of sorts with the little church pastor. We’d had a run of major disappointments with the little church faith community, so I didn’t get into all of the weirdo business. I left knowing I’d ultimately done them a favor. I’d kept most of my weirdness to myself.

And that’s what you have to do to succeed in my community. You keep your differences hidden. You’re permitted occasional sadness, battles with socially acceptable diseases, maybe even divorce. But non-binary gender identity, anti-capitalism, anti-racism, LGBTQIA+, disability requiring accommodation, mental illness that can’t be categorized as anxiety or depression, belief in climate change... these are things you’d better keep to yourself. Don’t be a social justice warrior. That’s not a term of endearment around here.

This is the world I decided to write about in my new book, More Than a Bad Teacher: my majority white, homogenous exurban home. It’s a place that’s working hard to squeeze out weirdos, but it just might be creating more of us.

In the coming weeks, I plan to write more of my personal stories that informed the fictional narrative in Bad Teacher. I hope that someone reading might recognize their hometown and realize that accepting difference could make it so much better. And then we can work together to get there.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Book Club Discussion Questions for More Than a Bad Teacher

QuestionsThe following discussion questions are provided to facilitate discussions around the various issues presented in the novel, More Than a Bad Teacher.

  1. Which details about Andy's community are unique to suburbs and exurban areas with little to no diversity?

  2. What are your impressions of the school where Andy teaches?

  3. How do you think the threat of school violence has impacted the schools in this story? In your own community?

  4. Many of the characters seem desperate for connection but unable or unwilling to reach out to those closest to them. Is this just family disfunction or a symptom of a broader problem in the community?

  5. How do you explain Ashleigh's reticence to report the assault? 

    What is it about her school and family that made it so difficult to speak out?

  6. What do you think of the parents' decision to bring public attention to the problems in their kids' school district?

  7. Why was the school administration willing to overlook Andy's failure to implement a student's IEP but deeply concerned about her deviations from the curriculum later in the school year? 

    What motivated parents to complain about what Andy was teaching?

  8. Do you think Andy made any lasting impact in her community? In her family?

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Coming Soon: More Than a Bad Teacher

Andy Garber isn’t satisfied with life. Her husband, Dave, is always working late. Her teenage kids, Ashleigh and Aaron, would rather be anywhere but with her. She teaches seventh grade in a mediocre middle school.

When Dave shows up one day and informs the family he’s accepted a promotion that necessitates a move across the state, Andy is forced to examine the source of her misery. It isn’t until her daughter falls victim to a classmate’s aggression that Andy looks deeper and finds the source of her discontent is more than just her specific circumstances.

More Than a Bad Teacher is the story of an ordinary family in a homogeneous exurban American community breaking free of the assimilationist culture that put armed police in schools, accepts ALICE drills as normal, and insists on graduating ideologically identical white folks generation after generation. It’s a story of hope that even the most complacent among us can make a difference.

Get it from Amazon on February 29, 2020!

Monday, November 25, 2019

Reclaiming My Name, "Winning" NaNo, and other Superpowers

Reclaiming Jo

I find myself in an awkward re-branding phase here in the fall of my 39th year. Since childhood, I've been called Jo or Joey in an even split. I always introduced myself with the slightly longer name as Joey is my full given name. Eventually, anyone that knew me well would call me Jo. My parents. My friends. My husband mostly calls me Jo.

We went to a local church starting in 2010 or some long time ago that we didn't tie tightly to any specific happening to firmly link it in our personal timeline. There was an important woman in that church that everyone called Jo. And I gave it up. 

I became Joey all the time.

My full married name sounds ridiculous to me. It always has. If I have to introduce myself, full first and last name, I'm apt to take on a heavy, fake, and poor Italian accent wherein I imagine myself a cousin that just got in from "the boot" meeting the Sopranos for the first time. In this image, I look like Danny DeVito. I'm fairly certain people that just see my name without me also picture Danny DeVito. Adding my middle name, Lynn, has done little to help.

Jo is a little better and over the years, without fully realizing, I've missed Jo. It's brief and dare I say cool?

In mid-2019, my family started going to a different church. It's further away, radically inclusive, and progressive. It's basically church-heaven to give it a theologically suspicious moniker. And in this church's very large congregation, I've yet to encounter another woman named Jo.

So after a couple of months at this new church, I decided to take my name back.

I write Jo on nametags. I've started signing emails with just Jo. And I'm up to a 50/50 split with introductions. I'm coming across as an awkward weirdo that doesn't know her own name, but it feels good. Good and less short, bald Italian man-ish.

"Winning" NaNoWriMo

I wrote about National Novel Writing Month two years ago. Specifically, I wrote about how I don't do NaNo and how I figured I'd never be able to do NaNo. Oh, doubting younger self, what a fool you were!

My daughter, age 14, writes like Alexander Hamilton. She writes every day, creatively. Her fantasy novels are beautiful and funny and highly readable. Someday she will blow us all away.

The 2019 NaNo was her suggestion. "Will you do NaNo with me, Momma?" There was adorable blinking and cuteness. Apparently, I'll go a long way to feel included at this juncture, so I said, "yes."

The regret was pretty immediate. We made this pact in early October and I was sitting on 30K of a rough draft on a new, actual fiction that I'd started about a year ago. I decided to think a lot about the next bit and then write like a busy bee in November. So while my daughter continued to plug away daily on her novel, I went on complete emotional hiatus from writing other than occasional passing thoughts of plot.

November 1st came and we were off. I, as a so-called freelance writer, at an obvious advantage due to my work from home flexibility. She was busy with school, ha!

Still, she posted about 300-400 more words than me each day. Excited by her lead, she suggested a side wager. Would I want to make a bet that I'd finish first? We made silly stakes and headed off to our laptops.

We kept pretty even through the first two weeks. A couple of busy days at school set her back. I pulled ahead. She stopped going to bed at night. I got 15K from the 50K goal and started to feel the thrill of finishing. Not so much achieving the goal, but freeing myself from writing every day.

Also, the story was going well.

But I was almost done, or so the NaNo website graphs seemed to suggest. On November 22nd, I wrote over 6,500 words and "won" NaNo. My daughter finished hers the next day.

In short, suck it 2017 me. You/I can totally write 50K in 30 days. In fact, you/I can write 50K in 22 days. Ha ha!

Other Superpowers

It has come to my attention, here in the fall of my 39th year, that I have certain superpowers. One is that I can predict, with a high level of accuracy, what will happen in a TV drama about 5-10 minutes before said event happens.

I noticed this first during an episode of Amazon Prime's Goliath. I basically called out what was going to happen and then, as though I'd watched it before, everything happened exactly as I'd said. My husband loves watching TV with me!

Then, on a NaNo writing day, I wrote an exact phrase and a whole scene of HBO's Succession that I didn't watch until the night after I wrote it.

Still trying to figure out how to monetize this ability, but I feel certain that a girl called Jo can do anything.