Saturday, January 29, 2011

Writing Influences: In Memory of Cooper: How losing my 1st student led to an agent


I've had many writing influences in my life from family to friends to my spiritual life. However, one of the strangest influences came out of tragedy....in fact, I wrote the story that landed me an agent because of it.

As most of you know, I'm a teacher. If there's anything God called me to be besides a future wife and mother, it's a teacher(and writer too, lol). Sure, I had dreams in high school and into college of being a newsreporter, but that wasn't meant to be.
I taught eight years before I lost a student. When you teach older kids, especially high schoolers, you know that losing one is inevitable. Two years ago on January 29th, 2009, I lost my first. I'll never forget that January morning. I was running a little later than usual, so when I heard my name, along with some other teachers' names, called over the intercom, I thought I was in trouble! I rushed into the principal's office where I found one teacher already crying. That's when I was delivered the news that my student, Cooper, had died.

I'd only found out a few weeks before that Cooper had heart problems and had a pacemaker. Since he was a tall, healthy, strapping kinda kid in ROTC, it came as a surprise. He had missed my class the day before because he was going to get his pacemaker regulated. Although his mom really didn't approve, Cooper loved playing sports, and he was playing in a basketball game when he simply collapsed and died.

As I started back to my classroom, I began crying. I even called my grandmother before school started to ask her to pray for the family, my students, and myself that I might be a comfort to the kids.

I had pulled myself together by the time all the kids got to first period. But I had to step outside when they came over the intercom to make the announcement. That's when long dormant memories of my junior year in high school came flooding back. There was an announcement that morning too telling the HS population that one of its most popular and most hilarious students had been killed in a car accident. His name was Travis Appling....he would have been the next Adam Sandler. He was one of those guys who was nice to everyone and made everyone, including his teachers laugh. Distant cousins, Travis and I were in the same homeroom, and we were often chosen by our homeroom teacher as the errand runners. We also sat together at lunch. At that lunch table was another sweetheart of a guy named David Wheeler. Never during that time of grief could we imagine that six months later, David and his girlfriend, Shelley, would be killed in a car accident.

Two lives lost within 6 months of each other. It was devastating to my class and my friends. And on that January day what happened with Travis and David came flooding back.

When I stepped back inside the classroom, I made the long walk to the podium in absolute silence. This morning there was not the usual noisy banter to quiet down. Staring out into the sea of expectant faces, my voice wavered as I tried to talk to them about what had happened and how we weren't going to do anything that day. And then I lost it....I'd never lost it in front of students before. Even during sad reading selections or movies when they would get teary, I would keep it together to be strong for them.

But this day, I didn't. And for the rest of the day, I became united with them in our grief. We cried, we talked about Cooper, and we even laughed. I feel especially close to that group of kids for what we went through.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, the way the kids grieved, especially the boys, really hit me. I also thought back to the way my class and friends handled the deaths of Travis and David. Suddenly an idea came to me to explore how teenage guys handled grief. More specifically what would it be like for a guy, who has had the same best friend since kindergarten, to discover his friend really wasn't who he thought he was. Then the characters of Noah, the grieving best friend, and Jake, the dead friend came calling in my head! At first, it was much more a darker comedy with Jake, a manwhore, getting blown up on a tractor. There is still a lot of snark and humor, but at the same time, I tried to capture what becoming in touch with your emotions might do to a guy.
I guess I should go ahead and preface that Cooper and Jake aren't anything alike....Cooper was a good ol' boy who enjoyed hunting, fishing, and playing basketball. It's simply his death became a catalyst of what I explored before imagnation took over with the character of Jake Slater.
So, Don't Hate the Player....Hate the Game was written over the course of June 2009. I began querying it in mid July. It garnered a lot of agent interest, and then in October, three agents offered before I accepted my Agent of Awesome's offer. Although it came nail bitingly close to selling this past July, it didn't. However, I'll always have a spot in my heart for DHtP because of how the idea was conceived. And I'll always be thankful for teaching Cooper and having him touch my lfie.

10 comments:

Pam Harris said...

Wow. Such a sad story, but it's great you found a silver lining. Since I work as a counselor, I had to help many students during situations like this. I try to be strong for the students, too, but I think you're right--it creates a sweet bonding moment when you can grieve along with the kids.

Connie said...

Wow, what a heart-wrenching story. Your book is a tribute to them.

Janet Johnson said...

So sad. I am thankful I write, because it helps me deal with these sad, sad things that happen.

Thanks for sharing your story.

Michelle said...

Hugs and love. Thank you so much for sharing.

When I was in high school, from my freshmen year to my senior, we had one kid die each year from differing classes. It was tough. I didn't any of them very well, but the impact was still huge, you know?

Laura Pauling said...

What a moving story. I can't imagine. I heard many years later of one of my former students committing suicide. Never easy. Sounds like a wonderful story. I hope it finds a home. Congrats on signing with an agent.

And thanks for the follow! :)

J. L. Jackson said...

This is a very touching story. It is amazing how certain events have such an impact on us. I've seen too many kids lost in the school in which I work, mainly due to violence, but it does affect me. I just wrote a poem last week because of one death (one of my students killed another one; they were both in one of my periods).

I am sure he is delighted to know he had an impact in life.

Krista Ashe said...

Thanks guys!! I appreciate all your comments.

Pam, I think it's awesome you're a counselor...I had thought about going back and getting my counseling degree. I did get training in the Rainbows Grief program and counseled students dealing with death, divorce, and separation.

Ugh, Michelle, that's so sad about all the students you guys lost.

Laura, so sorry about your student committing suicide. I think that would be one of the hardest losses ever. Thanks for the agent congrats! And your welcome for the follow! :)

Thanks JL....it is amazing the events that inspire you. So sorry about the students you've lost. Violence has to be a tough one b/c you feel so powerless!

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

And out of tragedy, there's a ray of hope.

It's amazing where we can find inspiration, even in the darkest of places. Perhaps your story will sell someday, but it's special even without publication. What difficult tragedies to have endured, but you seem all the stronger for having gone through it.

E.J. Wesley said...

Loved this post. I work with middle schoolers and can't imagine my life without that energy in it. Thanks for sharing this story.

Annie McElfresh said...

Awwwwww (((KIRSITA)))