My Work in Progress, or “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

Saturday morning, as I was walking my two dogs, I ran into an acquaintance I haven’t seen in years. (We used to take turns driving our two daughters—now with bachelor’s degrees—to Brownies. Yeah, it’s been a while.) She asked what I’ve been writing, which I realized is a pretty legit question, and a good thing to share.

Five years ago, I began a journey with a former student. Well, technically, I guess it started more like ten years ago. When I was her teacher in 2007 and 2008, she was a cocaine addict. At the beginning of the school year she was in an outpatient recovery program. Unfortunately, she continued to have drug problems and did not graduate, as she should have, the next year.

Danielle is the kind of person who makes an impression. She has always had the ability to seem simultaneously worldly-wise and terribly shortsighted. I met her as a high school junior, but sophomore—literally translated “wise fool”—suited her better. She is smart and articulate and was the kind of student who makes teachers want to tear their hair out with frustration because she dripped potential about which she was so cavalier.

Through the next five years she rode a roller coaster of recovery and relapse, eventually moving from cocaine to methamphetamine. Through it all, during the periods when she was sober, she would call me and we’d go have coffee. I was one of the people she excitedly texted when she got clean for a while and earned her GED. She has always had a special place in my heart, and teachers are, by nature, optimists, so I always believed she’d get her life together and move toward the bright future she should have.

Five years ago, she decided to get clean and stay clean. How that decision was different from previous decisions to get clean you must wait to find out, as you will see.

She also decided that she wanted to write a book about her experiences, but she struggled with how. An essay she could have managed, but a book is a different animal. She showed me what she had, and pretty soon, we decided maybe it would be better if we worked on it together. We began in November 2012, and we got together for an hour every week for a year. I would write down everything she told me, jumbled tales out of order, details fuzzily recalled because she was recounting events that had occurred while she was high, and I alternated getting more of the story from her with trying to figure out how to piece it into a book.

A year later Jefferson County elected a three-member corporate reform majority on the school board. This kind of thing can be a nightmare, especially when you teach kids who have a whole lot more than school on their plates. Their neighborhood school is often a lifeline for them, and a school board that undermines these schools abandons the kids I love, so the book went on hiatus. All my writing went into my blog, informing the community and firing up people to fight for our schools. Danielle was incredibly patient.

Honestly, looking back, we both see that the break wasn’t necessarily bad. See, even when an addict is committed to recovery, it’s not a smooth, easy process. While I was immersed in education issues, Danielle was working full time, going to college, and occasionally relapsing—usually just weekend benders, but it was clear she wasn’t quite where she needed to be to make this work.

When we got the school board majority recalled (yay, us!) and the smoke cleared, I was tired. I sort of felt “written-out.” I would look at my notes, and they weren’t fresh. I couldn’t remember exactly how they went together, and there are a lot of them, so it was overwhelming to think of picking it all back up. I wondered (and I never told you this, Danielle, so I’m sorry) whether I could just “ghost” out of ghost writing.

Then one of my students died of a heroin overdose. How could I even think of abandoning Danielle and this project? She had been unbelievably patient, and I have known from the beginning that her story is worth telling. It’s such a powerful story, and one I really think can help people. Plus, it’s just plain riveting. It’s a really good story, and I think the book was coming along really well. I just lost focus and lost steam. That was on me. If Danielle could pick herself up after a weekend of meth relapse and get back on the train, I could damned well get back on with her.

And then…she started police academy. Another hiatus, but again, worthwhile. Even though she graduated to find that her background is probably an insurmountable barrier to this career goal, she is setting her sights on corrections or some other form of law enforcement. She is three years completely clean, and we have been back to work with a vengeance. I hope to have the main body of the book completed before school starts next Thursday and the dénouement done shortly after that. Then it will be read by several people who know Danni well and can provide clarity and any necessary correction, and then it will be ready to go to my agent, who was pretty positive about the first hundred pages or so but hasn’t seen anything since.

I sincerely hope that before long you will be able to get the whole story at your local bookseller’s.

About admin

Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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4 Responses to My Work in Progress, or “What I Did on My Summer Vacation”

  1. Michele Patterson says:

    This blog post alone is pretty powerful so I look forward to reading the whole story. Congratulations on the book and best wishes to Danielle!

  2. Brenda Bronson says:

    Such a moving way to spend your summer vacation. Your career is Right livelihood.

  3. Nadine Swahnberg says:

    Great work, Paula. Jeffco Public Health Dept is looking at some kind of interventions or education on drug addiction among students. I am wondering if you know Pam Gould there? She might be interested in your book.

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