Teaching on a Tight-Rope
Teaching my novel to my own students is an experience I shall never forget - thrilling yes, but only in a manner tantamount to a dream
where I am walking a tight-rope stretched precariously across a ravine filled with rapacious creatures, all without the comfort of a safety net. Or perhaps clothing. Or both.
Not too long ago, both the English Director and the
Superintendent of the school district where I teach English and Creative Writing recognized the value of my students reading my novel, The Legend of Mickey Tussler, in class. All of us acknowledged the unique nature of such an endeavor and proceeded with alacrity. “Your students will benefit from ‘asking
the author’ about the creation of plot, characters, writer’s craft, etc.” my supervisor said. “And be given immediate, first-hand feedback. It is priceless.”
The superintendent was equally ebullient. “Frank, this is a wonderful opportunity for both you and your students,” he gushed. “They get the privilege
of hearing you speak about the creation of the story they are reading and analyzing it and you will be able to ascertain valuable insights into my own
story as seen through the eyes of some hesitant yet inquisitive minds in return.” Hearing their spirited sentiments buoyed my own zeal. Yes, this would
be a blast - an extreme alteration of the traditional classroom milieu - the pinnacle of an English teacher’s customary practice. What could possibly be more fulfilling?
Cue the tight-rope.
The first wave of trepidation came by way of a
diffident, slight girl who occupied the very first seat in front of me.
“But what if we don’t like the book,” she asked in
tremulous tones. “We don’t want to insult you Mr. Nappi with what we say?” I was able to ameliorate her concerns easily enough. I simply explained that we would spend some time analyzing my book in class, similar to the way we had done
Huckleberry Finn, Ethan Frome, and The Great Gatsby. In
an attempt to further assuage her angst, I shared that I had spoken to students from other school districts who read the book and although much of what we talked about was of the critical variety, I was still emotionally in tact and no students who voiced displeasure of any kind suffered any form of malediction. She was satisfied, but I was unmoored; the report of the shot she had fired resonated in my ears like the clashing of cymbals. What if they really
don’t like it? I thought. Then what? My apprehension burgeoned exponentially and I felt the need to flee but alas, it was too late; I was in too far.
The rope was already stretched, and I had taken those first few steps. I could not bear to look down.
So I inched along warily with both arms stretched out and discovered, much to my delight, that the experience was indeed everything that those who had conceived the idea said it would be. There were some dissenters of course, those who invoked the teenage mantra of “why do we have to read anyway?” and a handful of others politely suggested that I failed to capture their interest. Truth be told, it hurt a little. Most of my students, however, were thoroughly engaged and genuinely intrigued by the process by which an idea becomes a novel. They asked provocative questions and offered insightful comments about the characters and the thematic issues explored in the novel. It was beautiful; these young readers were provided with a window into
the world of the creative arts and they peered in, learning many of the intricacies germane to creative writing. And if that were not enough, teaching
what I had written years before made me fall in love all over again with my characters and the circumstances in which I placed them.
I was halfway across the ravine with nary a wiggle….but then the rope began to sway.
One of my students suggested that they write reviews of the book for me as a culminating activity. These reviews ranged from high praise to tepid interest to outright disdain. Again, the more pejorative ones stung a bit, but I was grateful nevertheless for their candor, insight and observations.
I was struggling a bit now but still had my footing.
It was only after some of my students had posted their reviews on sites like Amazon and Goodreads, that I felt my knees begin to slacken and my feet give way. The less favorable assessments stung more in print and I learned that someone with ill intent suggested that I was “compensating” students for positive reviews, even though those posted represented a fairly mixed lot. I found myself under siege, my character and integrity impugned
unjustifiably. I also found myself questioning my decision making abilities; why did I agree to let my students read my book in class? It exposed me in ways that no teacher should ever be.
I made it to the other side of the ravine, but I was
hanging by my hands.
Some weeks later, I received several emails from both students and parents, thanking me for being “brave” enough to teach my novel. Suddenly I felt better. Maybe I could do it again, I mused, with another one of my novels. Not a bad idea I suppose, except for the nature of my latest - a
mystery/thriller called Nobody Has To Know, the dark and somewhat daring story of Cameron Baldridge, a popular high school teacher whose relationship with one of his students leads him down an unfortunate and self-destructive path.
Hmmm. I may have to pass this time. That’s one
tight-rope that could easily become a noose.
My endeavor to craft my first mystery/thriller was in its most incipient stages fraught with much angst and trepidation. Having already established myself as a YA crossover novelist with both my first novel, ECHOES FROM THE INFANTRY, and then the release of my heralded MICKEY TUSSLER series, venturing out into unchartered waters was certainly a risk. Could I really write something of any worth in this genre? The fact that the subject matter for my foray into this new realm includes a teacher who becomes entangled in a relationship with one of his students only ramped up the drama -- I am a high school teacher and recognized right away the potential for criticism from those who were unable to separate artist from art. Still, I trudged on.
Once the story was complete, I faced my next wave of obstacles. My agent, who read the story and praised it for its literary merit, insisted that I publish it under a pseudonym. I did not share his opinion. Then when my submissions went out, several editors from many Legacy Houses, one with which I had been previously affiliated, balked. "Frank, the writing is certainly first rate, and you have crafted a wonderful story here, but readers will be put off by your protagonist -- and that will preclude them from reading."
Tough to swallow. Luckily, I did not.
My next move was to enlist the assistance of several impartial readers -- folks who had nothing invested in the project whatsoever - to ascertain their thoughts. I assembled a cadre of about 15 readers, comprised on both male and female fiction enthusiasts ranging in age. Over the course of several weeks, I began compiling the feedback and started to realize that the story I had written was indeed viable -- and in fact, it was resonating with readers. The myopic view of my protagonist that so many editors had taken was foundering -- actually, so many readers, including women, viewed him not as a lecherous predator but a damaged, forlorn soul who like many folks, is a victim of a past riddled with loss and misfortune.
Buoyed now by the validation of my initial instincts, I decided, with the help of my agent and publicist, to put the story out directly through Amazon. Naturally, there still existed an element of fear -- maybe those first readers were wrong. Perhaps the editors who rejected the story were correct in their assessments. After all, this is what they do for a living.
It was not until I received a wonderful endorsement from NY Times #1 best-selling author Nelson DeMille that I truly felt vindicated. Mr. DeMille called my novel "A haunting, briskly-paced page turner that explores the darkest recesses of the human psyche while propelling the reader through an intricate series of hair-raising twists and turns. NOBODY HAS TO KNOW is a masterfully written tale that is expertly told. Frank Nappi knows how to entertain the reader from start to finish." That praise has been followed by other formal reviews, all favorable, as well as a spate of emails from readers who are enthralled with the complexity of the characters and the pacing of the events in my novel.
This, above all else, is so gratifying.
For more information about NOBODY HAS TO KNOW, including the book trailer, excerpts,
and additional praise, please visit my site www.franknappi.com .
And for those of you who decide to really see what all the buzz is about, I encourage and also
welcome your insights about what you have read.
So the maelstrom of commentary about my upcoming release Nobody Has To Know
has already begun. The first chapter of the book was released free less than 24 hours ago and to say that I am incredulous regarding some of the
responses I have received is an understatement -- more like utterly amazed -- at just how self-absorbed and narcissistic some folks are - not to mention how
incapable many people are at accepting the concept of fiction.
The simple fact that something is put in print does not automatically render it true. And while there will always exist similarities between fictional
events and those which actually transpired, many times authors will use fictional
frameworks as a vehicle to express larger thoughts and observations about the human condition that while disturbing, need to be and should be explored.
Tim O’Brien, award winning author and in my estimation literary genius, grapples
with this very concept in his celebrated work The Things They Carried. O’Brien explores in great detail the difference between what is true -- that is, what
actually occurred -- and what is a truth -- an
abstract concept that conveys a thought or reality of what could happen in a given circumstance. The two concepts are not necessarily interchangeable.
Since at the core of certain concepts and behaviors there exists a universality, somewhere out there, there will also exist an individual or two
who has experienced something similar to what an author may describe. That does not mean that the author has replicated that particular event or has “borrowed” from a particular individual’s life -- it simply underscores the point that what has been written is indeed a universal truth worthy of
It is nothing more.
Nobody Has To Know is a work of fiction -one that casts a sobering spotlight on the damaged psyches of several characters and their struggle to navigate
the tumultuous waters that result from certain decisions they make.
If one looks at the novel objectively and consider all facets of the story, it is easy to see that taboo which is revealed is simply one part of a larger
tale, one that does not celebrate such indiscretion but rather condemns it and offers a fictional suggestion of what could happen when there exists a confluence of factors that happen to line up in a certain way.
I am looking forward to receiving continued feedback after the second free chapter is made available and of course once the book is officially released on October 16th.
Read the first chapter of my new mystery/thriller NOBODY HAS TO KNOW & watch the book trailer here: http://www.franknappi.com/index.html
The ability for an audience of any kind to separate an artist from his art is one of the most provocative debates of all time. And it is one that continues to insinuate itself into every facet of American culture.
I am reminded of this all the time.
When I endeavor to facilitate the genius of Edgar Allan Poe to students in my American Literature classes, I am invariably and reluctantly drawn into a
polemic about whether or not Mr. Poe was twisted and deranged and should be reviled rather than revered. I believe Stephen King has been subjected to similar criticism. The fact that some author choose to explore the macabre does not automatically render them social deviants. This sort of logic would then force readers to assume that EL
James is into sado masochism in the wake of the publication of the novel “50 Shades of Grey.”
The art world has always entertained this rift between artist and art. The paintings of Pablo Picasso, in particular his Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, have often engendered among some critics speculation and ultimately criticism over the artist’s intention. Is it art, some wonder, or simply the maniacal expressions of a mind both damaged and dangerous? I am not so sure that Picasso’s masterpiece, which explores life at a brothel for five
prostitutes, should automatically become an indictment of his own sexual habits or proclivities.
Even baseball and its athletes are not immune to such conjecture. As a staunch New York Met fan, I have struggled with this very issue each time I watch the New York Yankee captain, Derek Jeter, take the
field. While I loathe with every fiber of my being everything in Yankee town, I cannot help but marvel at and ultimately respect all of Jeter’s accomplishments. He is, undeniably, one of the game’s greats and deserves to be appreciated for
his talent and not vilified for the uniform he wears.
Easier said than done some days.
If time and space permitted, I could list countless
other examples of this conundrum as well, covering film, television, and other artistic mediums.
And now, as I prepare to release my latest
novel, which chronicles the indiscretions of Cameron Baldridge, a high school English teacher, I am left
pondering whether or not I am setting myself up for some very odd looks as I pass through the hallways of the school at which I have taught English for 24 years.
“Nobody Has To Know” is a major deviation from my previous work. It is a dark and somewhat daring
thriller which tells the story of Cameron Baldridge, a popular high school teacher whose relationship with one of his students leads him down an unfortunate and self-destructive path.
Stalked through text-messages, Baldridge fights for his life against a terrifying extortion plot and the forces that threaten to expose him. “Nobody Has To Know” is a sobering look into a world of secrets, lies, and shocking revelations, and is designed to leave the reader wondering many things, including whether or not you can ever really know the person you love.
That being said, I realize that the initial response of one who takes a cursory glance at this might include the raising of an eyebrow and an unkind thought or two, but I must try to set aside any trepidation and cling to the hope that we are enlightened enough as a society to allow a teacher to tell the story of another teacher (fictitious) without impugning his own character. I am waiting with anticipation to see how my readers and my colleagues react to NHTK and to hear your thoughts!
When one of our esteemed servicemen returns home to his loving wife, his
children and of course everything else that defines his life as it used to be, but makes the chilling proclamation that “it would be so much easier if if had just lost a leg,” something is wrong.
Major Ben Richards’ comment may
seem a bit quizzical if not downright outrageous at first blush - but when one
reads the tragic story that defines the life of this extraordinary soldier -- one that is replete with a series of brain injuries suffered as a result of a car bomb in Iraq in 2007 -- it all begins to make sense. Well, not all of it.
But one thing becomes crystal clear; when one of our esteemed servicemen
returns home to his loving wife, his children and of course everything else that defines his life as it used to be, but makes the chilling proclamation that “it would be so much easier if if had just lost a leg,” our
government needs to listen.
The story of Major Ben Richards is a tough one to hear. He was a brilliant young man who possessed an IQ of 148 and proficiency in several languages, as
well as an array of other talents that engendered glowing reviews and honors
from West Point, is now but a shell of his former self. In the wake of the repeated head injuries he suffered in Iraq during his tour of duty, Major Richards, who suffers from both TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and PTSD(Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), is having great difficulty executing even the most rudimentary tasks germane to basic everyday living. He possesses the “same
skin,” his wife Farrah says, “but is completely different on the inside.”
This same insidious residue of war that has plagued soldiers for years- including our WWII veterans and those men who fought in Korea and Vietnam as well -- has now threatened to destroy a young man’s livelihood as well as his marriage and entire family.
And that isn’t even the real tragedy here.
The real tragedy, one that is as unconscionable as it is sad, is that our government has just chosen to ignore him.
So despite months of struggles with headaches, fatigue, insomnia, fainting
spells and general inability to process things that are essentially routine
for most, Major Richards received no assistance because, in the infinite wisdom of The United States Military, if a soldier is physically capable of fighting, then he is not really injured.
With all due deference to President Obama and his declaration that we need “all hands on deck” to eradicate situations like these, the beat goes on.
In his New York Times article entitled “War Wounds,” , Nicholas D. Kristof cites that “for every soldier killed in the war this year, about 25 veterans now take their own lives.”
Statistics like this go a long way in lending veracity to the notion that at times, the greatest enemy our servicemen today face resides within.
Richards, who recently retired from his teaching position at West Point due to
his inability to focus in class, is now mired in the bureaucratic quagmire that
is our Veteran’s Administration. And while there are always fraudulent claims
that muddy the waters and make the swift rendering of benefits a little more
difficult, cases like that of Major Richards should not languish in this suspended state of oblivion for this long. It defies
logic and reason, not to mention compassion and understanding. And it is
certainly antithetical to the swift execution of the other facets of the military experience -- draft, bootcamp, specialized training and then the swift placement directly in the middle of a firefight -- all in about six months.
The average wait for a veteran to have his/her application for benefits approved is eight months. And those are the lucky ones.
Major Richards is still waiting.
And the egregious failure of our VA with regard to Major Richards in particular
remains a deplorable mystery. It ranges from circuitous responses from VA personnel regarding what benefits the Richards family qualifies for to the callous hanging up of the phone during one particular inquiry.
This, for a young man who devoted his heart, his soul and yes, his mind, to
When are we going to begin taking care of our veterans -- all of our veterans, including those who suffer from internal injuries that cannot always be seen?
Author of Echoes From The Infantry -
A novel about the psychological impact of war on a veteran and his family after WWII.