In sixth grade, I scribbled my first play, “Prince Charming and the Seven Widows.” This was not an innovative or complex story. It had no real educational value. It wasn’t the original lyrics or dance numbers that prompted my teacher Mrs. Shrauger to ask me to produce and direct it using our class as cast and crew. Perhaps it was my enthusiasm. Perhaps it was her heart.
Phyllis Shrauger was a member of the Hoquiam City Council when I was in her sixth grade classroom. She was an advocate for the arts, and civic responsibility, and took our class to a city council meeting. The choir she led sang Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” and “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music in nursing homes. She was the first teacher I ever witnessed providing differentiated instruction–before I’d ever heard such a term–for students who were differently abled. She partnered me with a student who had just moved to the country from Southeast Asia (I don’t remember where) and gave us each a hall pass to wander the school grounds whenever we liked, naming objects in English. Another student in class had a toy telephone in his desk that he called the Tigger Phone. She would pause whenever he pretended it rang.
Mrs. Shrauger treated my manuscript as if it weren’t derivative. She encouraged me to select a cast and let me lead a dozen students from class to the stage each day to practice our play, then convinced the principal to let us stage it for the entire school.
A few years later, I went to a small high school in a rural town. Marsha West, an English teacher, encouraged us to make radio plays of Greek and Roman mythology, and newspapers accounts of those decadent gods. Some of my favorite early passages in literature were from those we studied in her classes. Two years in a row, she took several of us to Port Townsend to polish and publish our stories as part of a statewide literary magazine called Crosscut.
I was a logger’s daughter without financial resources for college, so I moved to Edmonds, Washington with a friend, and went to work at Jack in the Box after high school graduation. I cleaned the morgue and pathology labs at a Seattle hospital. In my twenties, I worked for an army recruiter briefly, and later, processed overpayments for Social Security. After ten years of facing people’s death and disability, I took a good look around and knew I didn’t want to be there. I quit my government job to become an electrician’s apprentice. Then I quit that to caretake three children whose parent sexually abused and neglected them. Through the next two decades children I parented over thirty children, many with special needs.
Even mothers get a few solitary moments to pee. I hung a magnetic board on the inside of my bathroom door. For three minutes, several times a day, I could steal away and manipulate words while my world held steady. Oh sure, somebody was yelling “Mom!” right outside the door. Bolstered by bits of type, I’d reply, “Just a minute, I’m…busy.” As tired as I was, I followed Cynthia Whitcomb’s advise and lengthened my day by rising at 3 a.m. to write.
While I was busy patching lives and purging demons, I found new dreams: helping a young man be the first in his family to graduate high school. Seeing an elementary child’s rage at her rapist transform into powerful art. Seeing a mentally ill mother who killed her child get a fair trial. Witnessing my twin sons earn scholarships: One to Georgetown University, the other to Embry Riddle. Seeing each of my children grow up and seize life on their own terms.
Life will give you dreams if you are willing to see them.
In the midst of all that, I wrote a half dozen screenplays. One did pretty well in the Austin and Sundance contests, resulting in a story meeting in Los Angeles. The producer and I chatted before the meeting. He asked how many kids I had.
“A lot,” I said.
“How many is a lot?”
I hesitated, but what’s a mother to do?
“More than you can count on one hand,” I said.
He loved the script and agreed to shop it. But as we parted, he said, “You have so many children, I’m not sure you have the commitment to be a writer.”
Parenting is about commitment. Staying for the long haul. Relinquishing self-indulgence except in stolen moments that come between other people’s needs. I didn’t sell the screenplay although Lifetime held it for six months, passed, and requested it again a year later.
“Does the baby have to die?” they asked me, as if in telling a true story, I could change the outcome.
Despite some terrible days on which I failed as a mother and an advocate, I’m proud of what I have accomplished on behalf of people who needed me when their lives were darkest. So many changes in me as a result of caring deeply and taking a stand. I was led by these two extraordinary teachers and forged by fire. From that fire, I now write.
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Marsha West is alive and well, and still writing and loving life. You can read her blog at Marsha’s Musings.
Phyllis Shrauger passed away in 2009. You can read more about her here.