Irrational Yelling: The Inspiration for Kathleen’s Debut Novel

When I began writing MINOR DRAMAS & OTHER CATASTROPHES, I was in my fifteenth year of classroom teaching, a job I love. In fact, I never deviated in my desire to become a teacher since first having an inkling at age eleven. I idolized my teachers and coaches, desperately wanted to please them, and delighted in the quirks they brought to their work. I couldn’t wait to join their professional ranks, and I sprinted back to K-12 education directly after college.

I didn’t anticipate overzealous parenting to be an occupational hazard when I first stepped into my own classroom at age 21. Certainly, the families would all adore me and appreciate my many efforts! I’d be the teacher that miraculously re-sparked Johnny’s love of reading after a years-long struggle! I’d delight everyone with creative assignments and transformational grading practices! 

Well, that first fall, I spent 45-minutes getting yelled at for not letting Brittany (not her real name; none of these are) carry her backpack from class to class, though I didn’t make the school rules. My vocabulary lists were simultaneously too infantile and too advanced. I was young, so I probably didn’t realize the importance of seating Jessica close to her friends to quell her anxiety. Why, when Mary had spent six hours editing her paper, had “they” (she and her mother) still only earned a B+?

By January of that first year, I’d sacrificed my principles by rounding Brian’s grade from a B- to a B to avoid an inevitable email tirade. Another year, I excused myself to cry in the bathroom after a parent conference in which I learned I’d single-handedly ruined Andrew’s love of reading within the first six weeks of his sophomore year. Did I know, asked one dad whose daughter was being recruited by Division I schools for basketball, how much better an A- would look on the transcript than a B+? And what was the difference, really, between these adjacent grades?

A handwritten sign from my first classroom in 1999. I had high standards for decorum, even then.

It was easy for me, in my early 20s, to judge these anxious and overbearing parents, but when I became a mother myself, my perspective changed a bit. This is not to say that I have ever (even once!) berated one of my children’s teachers in person or via email (or via anonymous voicemail, which is what happens to Isobel in the first chapter of MINOR DRAMAS). But, have I privately questioned my kids’ teachers’ methods, or felt the handling of some situation or another was unfair/ill-advised/impulsive/otherwise totally wrongheaded? Sure. It’s natural, when we care so very much, to disagree sometimes.

The tension between teachers and parents inspired Julia and Isobel’s conflict in my debut novel. I’ll admit my early drafts cast Isobel, the teacher, in a sun-dappled light, infallible in her quest to open students’ minds to the injustices all around them. But as I revised, I hope I more accurately captured each woman’s imperfect, but well-meaning, motivations. They both have a deep desire to do the right thing by the young people in their lives, and they experience the pain and humiliation of public criticism when they fall short. 

As news of my forthcoming novel broke, parents of my students asked me warily if they themselves were the inspiration for Julia, the unhinged mom in MINOR DRAMAS. “No,” is my honest answer. She’s an amalgamation of all of the mothers I’ve worked with in my teaching career, all of them including me.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

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