Walking With Miss Millie tells the story of a friendship between a 10-year-old girl and her 92-year-old neighbor. This novel actually sprouted from my own life when my daughter –during her middle school years, was given the chore of walking our elderly neighbor’s dog. But just like feisty Clarence in my novel, the neighbor’s dog refused to walk unless his owner went along. One day led to the next and soon, it was understood that the unlikely threesome would walk and talk on a daily basis.
I knew I had to tell this precious story. But when I got ready to write it, other parts of my world were demanding to be heard from. I taught at a wonderfully diverse high school and for the most part, the students got along as well as teenagers normally do get along. But during that particular time I had been reading Writer’s Notebooks with a few disturbing issues of race relations. Some wrote about feelings of pent-up anger and hurt, others wrote stereotypes about people whose skin color was different from their own.
Of course, I want my students to live in a world of acceptance. But reading their honesty, made me think of my own family. Ten years ago, my brother-in-law and sister-in-law began a foster-to-adopt program. Since then, our family has grown to include three beautiful African American boys. So when I hear of injustice, bigotry, and racial tension, it’s personal.
More than ever, I need the world to be better, to do better.
And so, as I sat down to tell this story of an elderly lady and a young girl, my students’ struggles and my own hopes for them and my nephews rattled around my head as well as my heart. That’s when I decided to take the story of the unique friendship and set it long ago in the South—making my characters different races. I wanted the novel to not only celebrate our uniqueness, but to also embrace what we have in common.
I know it’s tricky to write a story with a message or moral in mind. The word “didactic” is in danger of popping up. But I’m a teacher and that’s a risk I was willing to take. I also soon learned that writers are discouraged to write outside their own race. But by the time I learned this, I was blissfully too far in love with Miss Millie and Alice to abandon them. I had to tell their story. Plus, how boring would the world of art be if we all only stayed in our own lanes?
And so I continued to write the story and hopefully honor the characters that were planted in my heart several years ago. Now, eight drafts and six years later, it is finally coming into the world.
Do I expect Walking with Miss Millie will enlighten students to be kinder to each other? Do I think it has the power to make a better world for my nephews and all kids everywhere?
Of course I do.
That’s why every writer writes, isn’t it? We write to make a difference. We believe we can affect change or in the very least bring a tear or a smile to a world in need of being reminded of its humanity.
In my experience, that’s when the magic happens—when we get to tell the story that only we can tell.
Last night there was something in my school email that really got my attention. Sure there was something about AIR testing continuing this week. AIR (American Institute of Research) is a refreshing acronym for a suffocating set of tests that we have to give our students to determine whether they learned what they needed to learn. These tests will take some of my students out of my classes three days this week alone. And that’s only part of the educational time they will strangle from us.
But that wasn’t the email that got my attention.
Of course there was another email reminding all of us about OTES (Ohio Teacher Evaluation System) and our SGM (Student Growth Measures) –these are yet more acronyms the powers-that-be have come up with to try to hide the obvious fact that they believe a certain test given on a certain day can accurately deduce whether a teacher is effective. This email was about the final steps involved in this year’s process to determine our success.
But, that wasn’t the email that struck me, either.
The email that got my attention last night was from a student. She wrote the email early in the morning when she couldn’t sleep. “I had to get this off my chest,” she began. Then she attached the poem she had written. This poem was raw and deep and powerful and painful.
And yes, I have this young lady in my Creative Writing class, but this poem was not an assignment. She wrote out of her darkness, in an attempt to find light. Her words were about secrets and hurt, but when I read between those pain-filled lines, I saw a plea for help. I wrote her back telling her that her poem was powerful and beautiful –like she is. Then I notified her guidance counselor.
Today, that young girl was smiling. I don’t profess that all her problems are gone. But I can confidently claim that she knows she is more than a test score to us. Her worth is not determined by a data point. And there is no acronym invented that can tell me more assuredly what kind of success we are having this year.
Something about the card I received almost 18 years ago wouldn’t let me throw it away. Of course, my husband might argue I lean towards that tendency for too many things –but this was different. This was special.