She turned a traumatic experience of teaching at a rough school into a touching and fun memoir.
I met Anne Averill online among 40 or so other writers. She was the featured writer for the month's event sponsored by Straw Dogs Writing Guild, an organization serving writers primarily in western Massachusetts.
She will be participating in an online reading focused on memoir called "Three Paths to Memoir: An evening with local authors Anne C. Averill, Celia Jeffries, and Leslea' Newman," presented by the Westhampton Library. Each author will discuss their relationship to the art of memoir, and there will be a Q & A.
Ms. Averill will read from her book, Teacher Dropout: Finding Grace in an Unjust School, and discuss the role of faith in her writing practice. Ms. Jeffries and Ms. Newman will also discuss their writing approaches.
Patricia Lee Lewis will be moderating the event. Ms. Lewis is the author of two books of poetry, A Kind of Yellow and High Lonesome. She is one of the founders as well as a past president of Straw Dog Writers Guild.
I sat down to chat with Averill at Friendly's restaurant in Florence, Massachusetts. We discussed her very indirect path to becoming a writer. "I was a tomboy. I wanted to play and do athletic things. I didn't like school, and I just didn't see the point of reading. I mean, why should I be inside reading when I could be outside riding my bike!" She added, "Although I did love Dr. Seuss, the pictures and the wordplay-- so great!"
She said her interest in reading and writing was finally piqued in high school when her fifth-grade teacher read Johnny Tremaine out loud to the class after lunch. Johnny Tremaine is a historical fiction story about an apprentice to Paul Revere who -- prior to riding his horse and shouting, The British are coming! The British are coming! -- was a humble silversmith.
"After he read it I thought, Wow! That can be a book? I mean, I was still interested in sports -- I won the physical fitness awards that year -- and of course, I was participating in the teenage drinking-and-getting-high thing, but I did also join Miss Houghton Creative Writing Club in ninth grade." She laughs at a memory: "I used to get terribly self-conscious about spelling, and Miss Houghton would say, 'You have great ideas, Anne, and no one's interested in if you can spell!'"
She talked about how she had a hard time making decisions. Making a decision about her major in college was tortuous: "That's for a decider, but I was a dilettante."
She then discussed how she then discovered her faith through a bible study group that she had happened into. She said that gave her the sense "that I mattered. It gave me the confidence to start writing."
After teaching English Language Learners (ELL) for seven years, she got a middle school teaching job in Holyoke. It was a rough school; she barely lasted two years. She wrote a book, Teacher Drop-out: Finding Grace in an Unjust School, based on her experience in Holyoke. "I consider the book an 'imaginative memoir.' All characters are composites . . .The chapters that come from a student's point of view were fleshed out from what the students told me, what I witnessed, and what I surmised."
The invite for the upcoming online reading starts with an unexpected sentence: "Memoir or a narrative based on an author's memories is a flexible medium."
"Imaginative memoir" can undoubtedly be considered "flexible."
She added, "With memoir, you know the plot, but not the theme. With fiction, you know the theme but you have to make up the plot."
Teacher Dropout is without question a "good story." Notice the images as she sets up the narrative in the first couple of paragraphs:
I walk into the main office through a glass door covered with a peace and love poster. Two secretaries sit behind a high counter that reminds me of a police station. Secretary number one flips through some papers with her acrylic nails. Itty bitty Puerto Rican flags paint each tip. Secretary two is a larger woman in a purple dress that makes me think of an eggplant dressed for a party.
I clear my throat and say, "I'm here for a teacher interview."
Miss Eggplant rises from her desk, her ripe rubbery flesh jiggling as she knocks lightly on a door marked 'Principal Reardon.' She opens it just a crack, and with the caution of someone feedling live bait to a shark says, 'You can go in now.'" (From Teacher Drop-out: Finding Grace in an Unjust School)
The visuals that presage the book's themes: a peace and love poster, police station, Puerto Rican flags, and the "caution of someone feeding live bait to a shark." Those four "items" plant a seed for the reader to mull over -- even if unconsciously.
She hopes the reader can then discover along with her. It's noteworthy that the book is written in the present tense. Thus, readers can live vicariously through Averill as if it's happening right now.
"Three Paths to Memoir" will be held online on June 24th at 7 pm. Look at the Facebook event to find out how to get the Zoom link. There's no charge for the presentation. Register on the event site or directly here.
Teacher Drop-out: Finding Grace in an Unjust School by Anne Averill is available at Broadside Books in Northampton. Of course, it's also on Amazon, where it enjoys praise and rave reviews.