How Homebound Teaching Made Me A Better Writer
If someone had told me thirty years ago that I’d be working for an inner city school district, that my job would require me to enter, all alone, strangers’ homes in crime-ridden neighborhoods, or dilapidated housing projects, or homeless shelters, I wouldn’t have believed them. I was far too timid and cowardly for a job like that.
My childhood was admittedly sheltered. I grew up in a small, middleclass town, where just about everyone I knew came from two-parent families. Our fathers—and some of our mothers—went to work each day. They came home each evening. We children went to school like we were supposed to. We played sports. Families ate dinners together. Children had bedtimes and curfews and rules. Life was orderly and structured and predictable—exactly the wrong background for a novelist!
But being a novelist wasn’t yet on my radar. I was a speech pathologist, and I’d just accepted a position in an inner city school district. I’d be working at a center-based program for mentally challenged children. Stories I’d heard of gang violence and drugs in the schools wouldn’t affect me in the slightest. And they didn’t. In the seven years I worked there, I never had a single frightening incident.
But eventually I grew antsy. I wanted to be a counselor. I earned my certification and, as luck would have it, a job opened up in my school district. Problem was, the position was at the big, dangerous, inner-city high school I’d always imagined was terrifying.
After much deliberation, I took the job. To my delight, I adored it. My wonderful students taught me more about life during those seven years than I’d learned in my lifetime. These kids didn’t grow up in houses like mine. The overwhelming majority came from households below the poverty line. Some had parents in prison—or worse, parents who had abandoned them completely.
Seven years later, a homebound teaching position became available, and the district was looking for someone with a background in counseling. It was a perfect fit for me, except for one problem: I’d be teaching sick students in their homes. The job would require me to go into the very homes that so far, I’d only heard about.
My childhood—and even my counseling position—hadn’t fully prepared me for this job. You can imagine my surprise when I met students whose mothers purposely kept them home from school, either to watch their younger siblings or because the parent “enjoyed their company.” It frustrated me that parents weren’t more active in their child’s education. I was aghast at the condition of many of the homes, the lack of daylight and fresh air and healthy foods. Clearly, this was a very different set of values than my parents instilled in me, and it was hard not to be judgmental.
But my students, who were kind and welcoming, didn’t know any difference. This was the life they were given. They showed no signs of discomfort or embarrassment. Still, it frustrated me that their parents couldn’t get it together.
As I came to know the families, I learned about mental illness and poverty, unemployment and educational disparity. I heard nightmares of absentee landlords and health insurance fiascos. Each home had a story. I sat at the bedside of a dying child whose bravery humbled me. I held a new baby while his mother—a seventh grader—sucked her thumb while taking a quiz. I witnessed a severely impaired boy who could neither speak nor move, but whose face lit up like a jack-o-lantern whenever his mother spoke to him.
My judgmental stance softened to compassion and acceptance and genuine affection for these families, who welcomed me each day into their homes, who offered me food and drink, though they had little to spare. I grew to recognize the unfairness of their plight, and how very difficult it was to break out of a culture so deeply entrenched. Above all, I learned that these parents, filled with issues of their own, loved their children, just as my parents loved me.
I’ve been working with homebound students and their families for thirteen years now. Though I never intended to write about my work, it was one of the bonuses of the job. The book and its characters are fictional, but I hope I was able to breathe life into my settings and characters. If I’d only had my world to write about, my writing would be one dimensional and flat. My job—the one I was sure I was much too cowardly for—allowed this small-town girl to witness a slice of life she’d never before glimpsed. To paraphrase Neale Donald Walsch, “Life, and storytelling, begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
The Life List:
In this utterly charming debut — one woman sets out to complete her old list of childhood goals, and finds that her lifelong dreams lead her down a path she never expects.
1. Go to Paris
2. Perform live, on a super big stage
3. Have a baby, maybe two
4. Fall in love
Brett Bohlinger has forgotten all about the list of life goals she’d written as a naïve teenager. In fact, at thirty-four, Brett seems to have it all—a plum job at her family’s multimillion-dollar company and a spacious loft with her irresistibly handsome boyfriend. But when her beloved mother, Elizabeth, passes away, Brett’s world is turned upside down. Rather than simply naming her daughter the new CEO of Bohlinger Cosmetics, Elizabeth’s will comes with one big stipulation: Brett must fulfill the list of childhood dreams she made so long ago.
Grief-stricken, Brett can barely make sense of her mother’s decision. Some of her old hopes seem impossible. How can she possibly have a relationship with a father who died seven years ago? Other dreams (Be an awesome teacher!) would require her to reinvent her entire future. For each goal attempted, her mother has left behind a bittersweet letter, offering words of wisdom, warmth, and—just when Brett needs it—tough love.
As Brett struggles to complete her abandoned life list, one thing becomes clear: Sometimes life’s sweetest gifts can be found in the most unexpected places.
About the Author:
Lori Nelson Spielman, a former speech pathologist and guidance counselor, currently works as a homebound teacher for inner-city students. She enjoys sailing, running, and reading, though writing is her passion. She lives in Michigan with her husband and a very spoiled cat.
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