I had an epiphany this morning about the structure of my book. The craft books I have been using say that the opening scene and the closing scene should be mirror images of each other, only the closing scene should show that the main character has changed to learn the theme or the lesson. The midpoint of the novel is a time when the main character seems to have solved their problem, but it’s the wrong solution. I think I may treat this as another mirror scene, as a pivot point into the danger zone. That feels good in my brain so I’m going to write it later and see how it sounds.
This made me think about my own transformations through time. I’ve learned a lot about what I want and need and what the difference is between the two. More importantly I’ve learned who I become in certain situations. Everyone becomes who they truly are when they face high levels of stress or fear, that famous fight or flight response. Since I was very small my response has been to fight. I thought I had this instinct beat out of me in my traumatic teaching positions in the beginning of my career, but in actuality I just learned to be quieter in my fight. The fire burns just as brightly, but only I get to see it.
I’ve experienced a lot of stressful and traumatic situations in the past 37 years, but looking back I cannot think of a time where I feared for my life. My sanity, my physical safety, my health – sure, but never my own death. I have made every effort through personal growth and therapy to become more self-aware so that I can more clearly communicate my needs as well as understand the effect I have on others, even in times of stress.
I do not know the person I am when I am facing my own death. I do not know how I behave towards people who are putting my life in danger, putting the life of the husband in danger. Threatening my pets, my livelihood, everything I have struggled to build to a point where we have enough money to live and put a little away in savings. I do not know who I am to the people who would so carelessly throw all of this away while I watch. I do not want to find out.
I am a good teacher. I am not a popular teacher, I am an efficient and effective teacher. I have a routine that kids rebel against and then settle into, eventually commenting that they like that my room is predictable and that they like knowing what is expected. There are no surprises in my room – only learning and growth. I’ve been teaching for 15 years and I consider myself a professional who is always looking for ways to make my process better, both for myself and for the success of my students.
That Mrs. Nissen I know. No one has ever met the Mrs. Nissen backed into a corner, forced into a room where a virus could attack and kill her. I don’t know that person. Yet. Many teachers will be discovering how their relationship with their students and their jobs will be altered because their first priority will be their own lives. What will that fight or flight response look like in the teachers who did not have the option to resign?
People often become completely different in times of high stress and not everyone is ready to face that mirror. Perhaps we are only at the midpoint, and in the process of solving the problem the wrong way we see someone we do not like, or we are forced to become someone we don’t recognize to survive where the plot is steering us. I see another option: maybe we can just skip to the closing scene, where we solve the problem the right way and we transform education and teachers to a distance model that works for all students and keeps everyone safe. We get to see the new face of education in a world of pandemics and school shootings where kids are safer at home.
This doesn’t have to take the structure of a novel. We have the power to skip to the ending, to avoid the painful learning of lessons and reach a new normal where everyone is safe. Teachers already sacrifice enough. Please do not ask us to also sacrifice our lives.