The F Words: English Teacher Hero

In my high school, Brookfield High (Brookfield, Ohio), my favorite teacher was my English teacher, Mrs. Dorothy Drummond. I was fortunate enough to have her as my teacher for two years rather than one. She influenced me  greatly with her love of learning, her wide range of knowledge, her understanding of the human condition as expressed through literature, and her love of language. In addition, she had a great sense of humor. 

It’s possible that I would have become a writer no matter what, but I do know that Mrs. Drummond strongly encouraged me to consider becoming a writer. For that, among other things, I am eternally grateful.

When I went to college, I majored in English and in History, but when I went on to grad school, I studied American Literature. I myself went on to become an English teacher at the college level, working as an instructor at Kent State University and Cuyahoga Community College.

English teachers and teaching English and literature are in my background, for sure, and probably in my blood. This is not to say, however, that I consciously think about English teachers a lot. As far as I know, I don’t.

Yet when I started to write the opening scene of The F Words, who is it that catches Cole tagging the high school walls with the f word? It’s Mr. Nachman, his English teacher. It could have been his cross-country coach. Or his math teacher, or history teacher, or social studies teacher. It could have been the principal, or the assistant principal. Or the custodian. Yes, it could have been any of these others, but the truth is that I never, ever, gave a conscious thought as to who would intercept Cole — Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, stepped into the story and onto the page without my selecting him. He just appeared and there was never in my mind the slightest thought of sending him back.

Mr. Nachman, I believe, was destined to intervene in order to help Cole, whose father is in Cook County Jail for organizing his neighborhood to protest against the closing of the local grade school. It is because his father has been thrown in jail for exercising his civil rights that Cole is angry. Furious. Frustrated. Which is why he tags the high school wall with the f word.

Mr. Nachman, of course, understands why Cole does this. If he didn’t understand, he wouldn’t be much of an English teacher: if he didn’t understand, it would mean that reading great literature left him with little or no empathy. If he didn’t understand, he would be a failure as a teacher.

Because he understands many different things at once  — that Cole is angry and frustrated; that defacing public property is not a responsible way to act; that somebody had better clean up the spray paint, and fast; that there are better, stronger, more effective ways to protest injustice — Mr. Nachman does not report Cole to the principal. Instead, he offers Cole a way out: if Cole volunteers to clean off the paint and writes two poems a week, each about a word starting with the letter f . . . then Nachman will never tell the principal who tagged the wall.

Mr. Nachman never states his motive for requiring Cole to write the two poems each week. Instead, he simply tells Cole that he (Cole) is pretty good at writing poetry. His motive, though, is to get Cole to think, to analyze, to reflect. About himself, other people, institutions, ideas — anything and everything that crosses Cole’s consciousness.

Like any good teacher, Mr. Nachman knows his students. The poetry-writing assignment calms Cole down and does get him to think, analyze, and reflect. And then, in the middle of the book, when Cole has made a major decision, Mr. Nachman steps in with more information about f words and about poetry. (I discussed this in a previous blog, The F Words: Poetry and the Middle).

Even that is not the end of Mr. Nachman’s importance to Cole’s life and to the story. But you will have to read the novel to see how that works out.

Mr. Nachman is not the hero of The F Words. The  hero is Cole. And Felipe. And Treva. And their fellow students who fight for justice. The teen characters are in the foreground. But in the background are a few adult heroes. Cole’s English teacher is one of them.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Poetry and the Middle

In my previous blog I mentioned that in writing The F Words based on the advice in Write Your Novel from the Middle, by James Scott Bell, I reaped not only the benefit of writing a book more easily and more quickly, but also the benefit of improving one of my thematic elements precisely because I was writing the novel toward its middle.

That thematic element was Cole’s writing of poetry. Specifically, only poetry about words that began with the letter f. As I mentioned in a previous blog, The F Words: Poetry, I felt good about the two poems Cole wrote in Chapter 1. They reflected Cole’s experience and his deepest concerns.

And so, off to a good start, both Cole and I were quite happy to have him continue writing such poems. Whenever he was struck by an f word (and he was struck by a lot of them) he decided whether or not to write a poem about it.

He wrote one about his best friend, Felipe. And about the Ferris Wheel he and his parents used to ride when he was younger. He wrote about force. Then he learned a new word and wrote about a fusillade. And so forth.

As I approached the middle of the book in my writing, something began to nag at me, and that was that Cole’s poems all had a recipient: Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, who had made the writing of them a condition of his not telling the principal that Cole had spray-painted the high school wall. Having had wonderful English teachers in high school and college, having been an English teacher myself, I realized that Mr. Nachman was not a passive recipient of these poems. He assigned them for a reason, and he would comment on them for a reason.

As soon as that realization hit me, I understood that Mr. Nachman would help Cole understand more about language and structure. And thought and action. I also understood that what Mr. Nachman has to offer Cole should logically follow Cole’s midpoint self-assessment. So, a couple of chapters after Cole’s midpoint decision, Mr. Nachman talks to him about trying some poetic forms (which include syllable-count poetry). He explains to Cole that writing poems that fit a certain form challenges poets in a way that free verse doesn’t. What Cole has been writing up to this point are free verse poems.

Mr. Nachman gives Cole the URLs to a couple of web sites which explain poetic form. At home Cole visits these sites and dismisses many of the forms as waaaaaay too difficult. But the syllable-count cinquain appeals to him. Curious about what form will do to a poem, he rewrites one of his free verse poems, “Force,” as a cinquain. Thus the poem “Force” appears twice in the book. Cole’s gut feeling is that the more “disciplined” form poem is more more interesting. In fact, he likes the way the form poem explodes with power.

Force

Force us
into corners
where we can barely breathe,
force us back so far we explode
on you.

For the remainder of the book Cole writes both free verse poems and form poems. His last poem is a strong form poem . . . indicating both that Cole understands the need for people to fight back against oppression, and that he has internalized that the methods of fighting back must be shaped and organized.

Would these scenes and this theme (through poetry) have occurred to me if I had been writing the novel from beginning to end without thinking about what happens in the middle? The answer is, I don’t know. I like to think that they would have, but I can’t say that for certain. What I do know is that they happened because I was thinking specifically about what should happen in the middle of the novel. That was when I realized that something should happen not only to Cole, but to the poetry he writes. In so many different ways, I am so glad I took the time to read and think about Write Your Novel from the Middle.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.