Crazy things happen when you claim your dreams – especially if you claim them in front of a crowd of high school students. For me, it was the kind of crazy that launched me (scared shitless) into the writing of the novel my students told me they wanted to read, the novel that became What Can’t Wait.
The scene: it’s April of 2006, and I’m teaching English at Chávez High School in Houston. Every day I’m selling my students on the power of reading and writing as tools for achieving their dreams. We’re all over the place—Shakespeare, college application essays, poetry, strategic career planning, research for real life, YA lit, you name it. I’ve got my kids thinking hard about their goals, and more importantly, what they’re going to do about those goals.
On this particular Friday in 2006, I’m feeling especially proud of the work my students are doing. Because we’re not rocking it in the suburbs; we’re in inner-city Houston, and most of my kids swore up and down when they walked into my classroom that they hated to read and nothing I could do was going to change that. But I’ve inundated them with scholarly habits, writing tools, and lots and lots of books. And I know I’ve done my job—perhaps a little too well—when the following conversation occurs as I wrap up one of my classes:
Me: Okay, so you know what’s got to get done by Monday, right, and you know how you’re going to do it. Goals, people, we have goals to accomplish! Any questions?
Rey: (smirking) What are you going to do about your goals this weekend?
George: I bet she’s going out… see you at the clubs.
Me: (rolling eyes) You know I’m going to be grading like a madwoman so that I can get your writing portfolios back to you.
Rey: Seriously, you’re always talking about how we’ve got to make our dreams happen by doing something now, so what are you doing about yours?
Me: (laughing incredulously) I work hard for you guys day and night. What more do you want?
Rey: Yeah, but what do you want to do? For you, I mean?
Rey: Like you’ve told us how you want to be a writer, but how are you going to make it happen? You know, like now?
While part of me is ecstatic to hear that Rey has actually been paying attention to what I’ve said in class, another part of me is thinking holy crap, I’ve got them so brainwashed that they’re turning my rhetoric against me.
In this moment, telling Rey that I’m too busy to do anything about my dream of becoming a writer is not an option. I know he’s going to ask me about concrete goals, about the small steps that I can take now, no matter how crazy my life is. After all, it’s what I’ve been preaching all year.
In that moment, frozen in front of that class of 35 juniors, I have exactly zero defenses. So I take the plunge. I claim my dream. I tell Rey that he’s right, it’s time for me to tackle a big goal, just like I’ve been telling him to. I promise my students that I’ll get back to them on Monday with my plan to get a novel written in a year.
Did I have any idea how to write a novel? I did not. Was I scared? Out of my mind. But I had taken the first step to actually making something happen: I owned my dream in front of a group of people I cared about. And you can bet your boots that I didn’t want to disappoint them.
What Can’t Wait is dedicated to my students because without them there wouldn’t be a novel. Without the stories they shared with me, I could never have written the book that’s now on bookstore shelves. And without the conversations my students and I had about making dreams into realities, culminating with Rey’s straight-to-the-heart question, I would still be talking about writing a novel, hiding my dreams in a safely distant someday.
P.S. In the interests of full disclosure, let me add the following. By May of 2007, I had written the first draft of my novel as promised. My students, including Rey, were my very first readers.
That’s the fun part of the story. An account of the three years of revision that followed is decidedly less glamorous. But I’d be a big ole liar if I told you that what I wrote for my students that first year was ready for the world. It wasn’t. Sweet Jesus, thank you for revision. How’d I revise myself into print? That’s a story for another day.
Find excerpts from What Can’t Wait and a sneak peak at Ashley’s next novel, The Knife and the Butterfly, at Ashley’s website, www.ashleyperez.com. Check out her blog for the scoop on the living-teaching-writing life, the story of her tattoo, and more.