Are you ready for something completely different?
I’m Elena, and I am a FEMALE Boy Scout leader. Read that again. And while “stories about the Boy Scouts” may not be on anyone’s list of trending topics in YA, my 1990s historical YA, EAGLE OR DIE, brings together the past and present of this cultural touchstone we call Scouting. Plus, it’s a heaping bowl of nostalgia for anyone who remembers the 90s...or wishes they did.
My main character, Dom D'Onofrio, is a single-leg amputee who also has a less-apparent disability. What does he want? The coveted Eagle Scout award. And what else? A girlfriend. But there's a couple things in his way. The summer's getting sticky, and it's more than just the Virginia heat...
Here’s a mood board I made on Pinterest: pin.it/6GvQpi2
And here's a few of the cultural touchstones I tossed in:
-Green Day -Carman -NAFTA -cargo shorts and Tevas -cigarettes -WalMart runs -cheese fries
-the very first digital cameras and cell phones -email, and people who had no idea how to use it
-prepaid phone cards -Razzles candy -camo-wearing good ol’ boys -well-heeled D.C. urbanites
-blade prosthetics -Kate Spade bags
….and even (drum roll please) a MIXTAPE FOR JESUS!
Stay tuned to Twitter (@elenavalewahl) for more details!
It’s 2010, in a small ranch house outside Cincinnati. The living-room carpet is well-worn and strewn with toys. A tall four-year-old with dark button eyes points at the TV. But he doesn’t want any of the four network channels; he’s already a hard-core train kid. “Momma...I wanna watch Coast Starlight.” The mother pops in the DVD, and 1990s footage unfurls a tale of an Amtrak train that runs from Los Angeles to Seattle, with all the ocean, mountains, and picturesque towns in between.
“Mom, can we go on the Coast Starlight train?”
The mother’s throat tightens. She can’t tell her child that she has tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan and credit card debt, so there’s no money for a train trip, especially one that involves hotels and plane tickets. Every grocery dollar is scrutinized, and even visits to the children’s museum have to be rationed for the gas money. Seattle is where a beloved cousin lived, but she’d never been able to visit her there. California is a place she’d read about in books, with an ocean she’d never seen.
“Maybe someday,” she says, a little too brightly. But in that moment, ‘someday’ is entirely too far down the tracks.
The years rolled on for that young mom, the little boy, and his brother, two years younger. She found a teaching job with Ohio’s third-largest school district, but money was still tight. She divorced, she remarried, she started graduate school, and she and her new husband continued to plug away at those credit-card bills. Most of the travel was to visit the young mom’s mother and stepfather in Florida. Once, they met on the North Carolina coast.The young mom talked about planning trips jointly with her mom and stepdad, but no definite plans were made until Covid shut everything down. The stepfather passed away, and the young mom grieved with her mother.
Yet 2021 brought a redeeming ray of sunshine. Reduced airfares. A vaccine to make travel more safe. Two Sunday nights ago, that young mom got her someday. And a few days after their flight to LA, that dark-eyed boy, now fifteen, still a railfan, sat next to his grandmother and gazed out the window for three whole states’ worth of scenery. A trip eleven years in the making.
I am that young mom, though less young now, blinking back tears, struggling to find the words for my gratitude.
Some things are worth waiting for.
In most of the Western world, travel is a privilege, saved for and planned. I am keenly aware of my privilege, reminding my sons that most Americans wouldn’t get to take a trip like this. Some live a lifestyle of travel, dictated largely by profession. From what I’ve heard, the vagabond path has its good and bad points. For the refugee, “travel” is what happens when a cartel threatens you, and you must flee in the middle of the night. Travel means thirst, walking by foot, scarce food, and armed guards. Whether traveling is a choice or a necessity, the traveler misses those whom they’ve left behind, whether through geography or through death.
For years, I wanted this trip, unsure of when it would happen. And I’m so grateful it did. I’m also grateful the trip was taken under circumstances that made it fiscally responsible (rather than being impulsively charged on a credit card).
There’s something else I’ve waited for for many years, and I am hopeful that when it finally arrives, I will have the same sense of fulfillment that I have reflecting on this trip. I wrote my first screenplays in 2007 and 2008, falling in love with the creative process, but also hooked by the glamour of the movies. I worked to make connections in the filmmaking world, but hit wall after wall, since I didn’t walk in those circles of influence. Writing went on the back burner while I worked to re-establish my education career, and while I struggled to recover from a life-threatening illness, but my graduate studies in literacy lit a fire in me for children’s fiction. I completed my first novel for young people in 2016, my second in 2019, and am working on a third. Traditional publishing with agent representation is the path I have chosen, as opposed to self-publishing. This path requires submissions to agents and entry into pitch contests.
As of this writing, I am unsigned, and my books remain unpublished. I’ve heard that persistence—keep writing new work, keep submitting—is the key to success. Yet I question, “How much longer?” It’s not just the brass ring of “being a published author.” It’s the reason I am writing. I write stories about working-class white kids, particularly those from the Appalachian region (for those who are not aware, it’s not recommended that white authors pen stories with minority main characters, so that cultures are most accurately depicted and POC authors get much-needed representation). I write these stories because this demographic group is underrepresented in children’s literature. I write these stories because I lived that life. And what’s more, the book I have queried for the last three years is about the impact of addiction on a family, something I’ve experienced first-hand. I am persuaded that someone needs to read this story. The trick is finding someone in the industry who believes in this story the way I do.
So many people want to see their books in print. But it takes more than want to make it happen. As I resume writing my WIP (work in progress) and continue to seek a home for Rock Unsteady, I stare down these figurative train-tracks, the same way I stared down actual tracks last week. How far down is the realization of my goal?
It’s unknowable. But I haven’t lost faith yet. And I’ll never lose my gratitude for those cheering me on.
If you’d like to see photos of our trip, check out my Instagram: @elenavalewahl.
Are you from the American South? Are you proud of it? Embarrassed by it? Maybe a little of both? Or are you a non-Southerner who has some preconceived notions of what the South is like? Regardless of your answer, I encourage you to check out the level:deepsouth anthology. And I don’t just say that just because I’m a contributor.
This level:deepsouth anthology covers a time and place you may not hear too much about...the southeastern U.S. during the seventies, eighties and nineties, and reflections since that time, as seen through the eyes of Gen-Xers. Uh, Generation X? You know, the people who get left out of so many discussions of generational trends. Younger than Boomers, older than Millennials, born between 1965 and 1980.
The South at this time was a place where American pop culture collided with Bible belt beliefs, desegregation, and all the cultural trappings that made life in, say, Knoxville, Tennessee a little different from life in Manhattan or Lansing or Oakland. In these stories, you’ll find album covers, concerts, and promises made in church basements. It’s a close-up on the last little bit of life before cell phones and the internet flipped human engagement on its head.
Here’s a couple of my favorite gems. “Bitter Melon Soup” by Rob Linne describes a white teen’s friendship with a Vietnamese refugee family in haunting prose. “Dinner on the Grounds” by Luisa Kay Reyes describes how a college student with roots in Alabama and Latin America shared Southern traditions with her campus friends. Ben Beard’s “Southern Christian Punk and Other Unicorns” documents a push-pull between the cultures of church youth group and punk rock. And the latest I’ve unwrapped is a gorgeous tone poem on the death of a hippie coffee shop: “At the Epitome” by William Nesbitt.
Check them out. They’re worth your time.
And if you want to laugh at a neurotic preteen, you can check out my memoir of life as a young outdoorswoman, “Camp Earl Wallace.”
The level:deepsouth anthology is edited by an Alabama-based author and creative writing teacher, Foster Dickson. He’s still taking submissions, and there’s room for essays, short form pieces, book and album reviews, photos, and more. To learn more: https://leveldeepsouth.com/submissions/
Thank you, dear reader, for letting me share my passion for this project. And let me leave you with a meme that one of my age-mates posted recently. “The first rule of Gen X is, ‘Don’t talk about Gen X.’”
Yeah, the anthology broke that rule. But it’s not the first rule or the last rule you’ll see us break.
Don’t worry, there will be no name-calling. Demographically, I’m much more likely to have been one of you...a white, Christian, married Kentucky girl who attended a religious college and volunteers with the Boy Scouts. In terms of my lifestyle and my respect for authority, I am more conservative than most. So some of you were surprised, or even upset, to find out I wasn’t a Trump fan.
There will be no gloating from me. You already know that the candidate I voted for won, and that while recounts and challenges continue, they’re not likely to result in a different president. Some of you are very upset. I’ve seen a few social media posts about a dead America. I am not here to belittle your pain. Four years ago, I was the one feeling like the America I knew was slipping away. But what is this country you are so afraid of losing?
Are you now willing to listen to the other side? Because I have listened to yours. I spend a lot of time following the news and reading analysis from both sides of the aisle, and I know many people who said they objected to Trump’s behavior but had to vote for him based on policy issues. Understanding that there’s diversity of thought, including among Trump supporters, here are some common themes: the economy, jobs, immigration, healthcare, law enforcement, guns, abortion, and the culture wars.
It’s not that these things don’t matter to me. It’s that we disagree on the best way to handle them. Maybe if we took a look at some of these differences, we’d find more common ground and a less divided path forward.
The economy. Yes, I want the economy to do well. But how do we measure that? If we only use the stock market, we’re ignoring employment numbers, money in savings, and a whole lot of other financial indicators. When our lowest-paid workers are coming to work sick because they have no paid time off, or families can’t find affordable housing, that affects everyone (hello...Covid).
Jobs. You said you voted for Trump because he’d bring back jobs. But I teach at a public school. If Betsy DeVos succeeded in privatizing education, and the new principals decided a music teacher wasn’t a priority, my job would be first on the chopping block. So, do you understand how a vote for a party that supports public education was in my family’s interest?
Immigration. With the exception of our Native Americans, we’re all immigrants. You said we needed a wall to keep people out. Why, when every immigrant I know came here to work, not live off the dole? I have no issue with criminals being deported, but you say you’re upset because they came here without papers. That’s because our immigration system needs reform. Asylum is being denied and legal fees to have your case heard run into the tens of thousands. What if it were you, or someone close to you? Would you feel differently? Who deserves a chance to become an American?
Healthcare. I’m sure you want good healthcare as much as I do. But I think everyone should have it, and I’m especially concerned about those too rich for Medicare but too poor to foot enormous bills. This one is personal. I racked up about $40,000 when I contracted bacterial meningitis, but my school-board insurance policy covered almost everything. I’d honestly like the same for you, and for all of our neighbors.
Law enforcement. I support law enforcement. I don’t want to live in a society without it. I just don’t want cops to overuse force, resulting in the death of people who don’t deserve to die. And I, like most Democratic voters, do not condone rioting and looting. But the implication that I condoned it because I supported the right to peacefully protest is divisive, and I’d really like to lay it to rest.
Guns. They’re such a part of my Southern culture that honestly, I’m pleading the Fifth on whether I own one or not. I understand self-defense and the Second Amendment. But guns are not the solution for every problem, and their easy availability makes our murder rate endemic. How many bullets do you need? Do you know how much money the NRA has spent trying to convince you that the Democrats will take all your guns? If you know that wouldn’t happen, why do you vote like gun loss is society’s biggest threat?
Abortion. I don’t like it. The vast majority of people don’t. There aren’t any easy answers to this one. But when there’s a clear link between a declining abortion rate and programs to help new mothers, I believe that voting for a Republican is not the only way to "vote pro-life."
And last, but certainly not least, the culture wars. Whose culture? Is homogeneity what makes us American? Or is it a shared belief in freedom and the common good? You already know I teach all the kids who walk through my classroom door, regardless of their national origin or skin color. And, you know my co-workers have sexual orientations or religious beliefs that are different from mine. But the America I love is for all of us. So that’s why I could not get on board with the culture war that Trump did not start but fanned into flame. And speaking of culture wars, I am dismayed by the use of ‘socialism’ as a scare tactic to sway us not only from certain leaders, but from government programs that could help so many of us. I don’t want Venezuela. I want that land of opportunity we used to hear about.
You said you didn’t care what Trump said. So what if his speech was ‘rough’ or ‘coarse’? But does his speech reflect an America for all of us? If you can’t say yes, you probably understand why I, and many other people, could not give him our vote.
You may not agree. You may still be sorely disappointed in our country. But have you tried seeing the Trump phenomenon through another set of eyes?
Sincerely, your Democrat friend.
Long, long, ago, in a galaxy of sippy cups far away, a youth group friend told me about Scary Mommy. (Oh yes, former youth group members like snark as much as anybody.). Perhaps I've found my sweet spot, because despite multiple rejections from Guideposts, I just published my first piece on Scary Mommy! It's about my experiences as a female Boy Scout volunteer. And yes, that's me in the header photo, holding a falcon. I mean, who wouldn't want to hang out with a falcon?!
Here's a link: Scary Mommy Scout piece
So, this quasi-quarantine summer is turning out to be a productive season. My YA historical is well under way. My kiddos still have a few activities to go to. I've read a few good books. And, my hair color is now RED...a better match for my firebrand personality.
A rare toilet paper sighting, early on a Sunday morning, during the COVID-19 outbreak.
In this corona-virus shutdown, I find myself in a place of unrestful comfort. No one at our house is visibly sick. We’ve got soap, toilet paper, WiFi, and a well-stocked fridge. Gratitude is my outer garment, but anxiety lies just beneath. Unlike a lot of my neighbors, I have survived a life-threatening disease. I’ve spent a few days in a coma and on a ventilator. My family was terrified, and I couldn’t see my kids for more than a week. I remember the sense of invincibility that I had before I got sick, the effervescent gratitude of survival, and how much my life has changed since that time. And I wonder if those that do contract COVID-19, and survive, will struggle with aftermath symptoms like I did, and if so, which ones. Hearing loss? Motor control? Memory? Or will it even be hard to breathe?
It’s been interesting to see other people develop the OCD/germophobe tendencies I’ve lived with for years. A video meme featured a young guy washing his hands repeatedly after accidental touches to the faucet handle and his face. I get this. I tend to open doors with my knuckles or a sleeve, even when there’s not a pandemic. Usually, I’m able to turn off the voices in my head, especially when I’m teaching music, though I cringe if a child returns from the restroom and announces, “I forgot to wash my hands!” I turn off the voices that screech “That’s dirty!” because I love people and don’t want to alienate them. And now that the Great State of Ohio has moved all schools to digital instruction, I only have to worry about the cleanliness of my own home.
So here I am, indirectly benefiting from this crisis by being home from work, while also haunted by those for whom staying home is not a privilege. An ER nurse at one of our local hospitals has contracted COVID-19. I’m terrified to hear about personnel without gowns and masks. I pray for them. I pray for their families. And I pray for my students, for whom school is a bright spot they’re missing out on.
It’s a sober time.
A couple of friends decided to rent a cabin to get away from the stress. I declined to join them (though that's not a slam on them, 'cause I love them to pieces). I have more peace at home right now. I have more time with my immediate family. Work on my writing has replaced the trip to see my mother in Florida, who happens to be one of the immune-compromised folks we are all working so hard to protect. A live-streamed service replaces our weekly time volunteering at church.
And as I write this, I’m watching the news conference of Governor Mike DeWine and Dr. Amy Acton, two figures who have put politics aside to slow the pandemic. Our state’s on a stay-at-home order until April 6.
I am eager for life to return to normal, but not so eager as to risk the spread. And I’m deeply grateful for those on the front lines: the healthcare workers, the police, the truck drivers, those making and selling our food. And yet, there’s a part of me wishing I could do more.
I leave you with one anecdote on how this epidemic affects our youngest ones. On Friday, I took some supplies to the food-and-lesson pickup at the school where I teach. And I saw one of my first graders. His face lit up as he saw me through an open doorway, and as he ran toward me, I said “Long-distance hug!”
He must not have understood, because he buried his face in my tummy and wrapped his arms around me. And I hugged him back. And as I did, I thought about what Jesus said about following the spirit of the law instead of the letter.
Exercise caution. Follow the guidelines. But hold people as close as you can.
Imagine you’re thirteen, and you’ve been best friends with your same-age stepsibling since you were tots. Matter of fact, everyone calls you “the twins.” But in just one short year, you go from this...
...because your dad finally made the big time with his heavy metal band (which is something along the lines of Korn):
“Hey, y’all, I’m Haven, and animals are my jam!”
“Sup, I’m Marlin, and I run with the popular kids. I can’t wait to get on the select baseball team.”
But while Dad’s out doing this...
Mom is doing THIS...
And suddenly, no one’s rocking steady.
ROCK UNSTEADY is set in modern-day Kentucky, where suburban McMansions are quickly overtaking the tobacco fields. The primary conflict’s between Haven and Marlin. They’re insanely jealous of each other, and what one wants is at odds with what the other needs. I drew upon my experiences as a rural Kentucky teen, a 4-H mom, and a loved one of an addict to craft this suspenseful modern yarn, told from Haven and Marlin’s points of view.
I have a blue-and-white badge that identifies me as a teacher in a large, urban school district. It carries just a tiny bit of power—as in, activating the elevator and entering through the side door—you know, the one without metal detectors. But that same badge, and the position it signifies, gets me some wrinkled noses in the lily-white community where I live. Since I’m an #AuthorEducator whose teaching works synergistically with my writing—even in the thick of the August rush—allow me to clear up a few misperceptions.
“Oh. Cincinnati Public.” For some white folks in the suburbs, those words are handled in the same way you’d pinch a Clorox wipe between your knuckles after wiping a toilet. As in, Oh, it’s necessary, but I try to stay far, far away. A few years back, I taught for a diverse suburban district, and I asked a teacher friend, “Why do people have such an attitude about Cincinnati Public?” She—a white woman with many black friends—answered bluntly: “They’re afraid of black people.” A couple years later, I met a white single mom who substitute-taught, and spent every penny of her meager earnings on an apartment in an affluent district. “I would do anything to keep my daughter out of Cincinnati.” But not long later, I was hired by the district, and sent my own son to kindergarten at a CPS magnet school. So there’s that.
“Are all your students black?” Yes, people actually ask that, and no, it’s not true. At my school, we serve Appalachian, African-American, Hispanic, and multiracial students. And I still tense up when I recall convos from earlier in my career, when SO. MANY. PEOPLE. attributed “the behaviors” to “the black kids.” Please believe me when I say this...you’re harming everyone with this stereotype. Parenting styles, individual talents, income, and yes, even privilege are so much bigger than color. I have worked with beautifully advantaged black children, and white kids who railed against a world that they believed hated them.
“Those teachers aren’t as qualified.” I have brushed up against some fabulous brains during my time at CPS. And I mean brains that are street smart as well as grade-and-test-score smart. We don’t just present content and plan experiences...we also spend countless hours on interventions to dismantle the barriers to learning that sprout up at every turn: hunger, racism, family dysfunction, drugs.
“I heard you all got a raise.” This was reported to me in a bright, chipper voice by a staffer at my son’s school, after we moved to the suburbs. I smiled and nodded, thinking of how she heard about this on the news, and how conservative talk radio pundits would rail about how taxpayer dollars were being flushed. I also thought about eighth grade boys prying the bars off my xylophones, and seventh-grade girls spitting in my hair when my back was turned, and late nights, typing and grading at my computer. And, I thought about how Cincinnati teachers report to work on days of freezing cold, leaving our suburban kids at home because it was deemed unfair for us to stay home for inclement weather.
I think I earned it, don’t you?
“You must be glad to leave all that behind at the end of the day.” Actually, it’s a little sad. Have you ever seen The Princess and the Frog? Do you recall when Tiana and her seamstress mother left rich Lottie’s house and rode the streetcar, past the mansions and their lawns, to the lot of tiny row houses? I make that journey in reverse when I leave the city for the four-bedroom houses of my ‘hood.’ See? Even when I call it my ‘hood,’ you see the irony. (No cultural appropriation intended). I didn’t grow up with money. But rubbing shoulders with the poor every day gives me an awkward relationship with what I have.
I know some, but not all, of the stories my students live. But my greatest hope is that they feel heard and validated by me. And if I am fortunate, it won’t just be within the white walls of my classroom. It’ll be in the white pages of the books I write, bringing their hurt and joy into full color. And maybe my story will spur them to write their own. Because stories live. Even when they come from those kids. In those neighborhoods.
At the end of each school day, I stuff the badge in my purse before beginning the long trek home. But I still feel its weight around my neck.
One man’s trash is another man’s recovery button for family traditions.
A couple of weeks ago, one of my stepsons showed up at our house with a hand-wrapped gift for my husband. I was a little surprised, since he’s not at the age of earning his own money yet. I was thrilled to get a new blender from my oldest stepdaughter last year—who waitresses—and joked that it replaced a blender that was about as old as she was. So the present from The Blur, as I’ll call this stepson, went under the tree.
Yesterday, when we opened gifts, my husband unwrapped the Blur Box to find a carefully handpainted Steelers logo on canvas, and….a Steelers sweatshirt. I wondered, how did a junior high kid foot the bill for NFL gear?
Turns out he didn’t.
On December 2, the Steelers suffered a heartbreaker of a loss to the LA Chargers. My husband, being the cool cucumber that he is, made his own charge out of our local Steelers bar, yanked off his Steelers sweatshirt, and threw it in a garbage can. Unbeknownst to me or his dad, The Blur fished the sweatshirt out of the trash can and obscured it under his own hoodie.
By then, my husband had reneged on his vow to never watch the Steelers again, which was a relief to The Blur and I both, since he’s evangelized us into Steelers fans, and we really love our Steelers bar.
I complimented The Blur on his ingenuity...and politely asked if the shirt had been washed. It hadn’t. But hey, easy fix.
And I’m glad this kid knows the value of a dollar.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all--even those dad-gum Patriots. And for more on our fabulous local Steelers bar, follow me on Instagram @elenavalewahl .
Last night, I went to see Bohemian Rhapsody with my husband and some of our kids, after our ten-year-old had begged for weeks. Some of you know I started out in screenwriting, and, as the filmmakers intended, I identified with Freddie Mercury on many levels: the search for acceptance in romantic relationships, the creative differences with his bandmates. But more than anything else, the high that Freddie got from making and performing resonated with me.
At eighteen, I had a crazy plan to major in biology and minor in music. I thought I could make a difference as a doctor for the underprivileged. But during my senior year of high school, when my Saturdays were filled with choir competitions, a minister from a church I didn’t attend talked to me about my future options. Elgin Emmons taught English at my small-town school as well as serving in the pulpit of a Methodist church, and I’ll never forget what he said about public education: “I can reach young people here who would never darken the door of a church.” So, teaching was a back-pocket option when I started college, despite the premed plans.
Then, late in my first semester, the music department hosted visitors from the Cincinnati College- Conservatory of Music. They joined our tiny Freshman Theory class to sing an acapella motet: If Ye Love Me, Keep My Commandments by Thomas Tallis. And my whole world shifted, because I literally felt like the music could levitate us into orbit. I thought, I have to plug people in to something this powerful. And I changed my major to music education.
Freddie Mercury’s immigrant parents might have preferred to have a doctor or an engineer for a son. But Freddie plugged into the power and, through his performances, plugged millions of others in, too. Like everyone else, I absorbed the vignettes about the genesis of hits like “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “We Are the Champions” with a smile. But in the closing scene, when Queen performed “Radio Ga Ga” at Live Aid, I could not sit still. I was there. Not literally--though the concert’s publicity was well within my Gen X memory. I was Freddie Mercury--the kid with the radio as her only friend. I didn’t have a CD player until high school graduation. I’d wait for hours for a favorite song to play on the radio and record it on a cassette tape--piracy before MP3s. Music is my drug of choice. I never needed chemicals to get high, just a favorite bass line or harmonic progression.
I still plug into the power of radio. You’re giving someone else the power to choose the next song. You never know what dud--or gem--might play next. And despite my busted vocal cords and limited piano ability, what do I spend my days doing? Getting kids plugged into the power of music. It’s my privilege. They may favor different songs, but as long as they can plug in somehow, I’ve done my job.
And it’s an irony--maybe not intentional--that Lady Gaga chose the stage name that she did, when her pushing of artistic boundaries has affected today’s youth in the same way as Freddie’s push influenced the 70s and 80s.
By creating, we reflect the glory of our creator. I will never tire of going ga-ga with music.