Editor’s Note: Kathleen West’s debut tackles the confusion, delusion and, yes, catastrophes often seen in the ecosystem of grade-school education. In this edition of Behind the Book, West lets us in on just how much of the storyline was influenced by her own life as a middle school teacher and what she would like readers to glean as they pour through the pages of her wry, cleverly observed offering.
What inspired you to write Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes?
The idea for the story came to me as I waited to find out whether my then-sixth grader had been cast in his middle school musical. I taught in the school he attended, and a colleague asked me if I planned to sneak up to the drama board and check to see if he’d gotten a part. Though I admit I was tempted, we agreed this was a terrible idea. What kind of parent would storm the bulletin board, pushing kids aside to read the list?
Obviously, I loved the idea of a character who would do just that. Julia means well, but she’s completely out of line. I’ve met moms like Julia lots of times, and I feel like I’ve (mostly) resisted being a mom like Julia lots of times.
As I started writing about Liston Heights, both from Julia’s and Isobel’s perspectives, I found myself obsessed with public criticism, which plays a big role in school communities. Everyone has been in school, and so everyone thinks they know how to define excellent teaching. And usually, when parents don’t agree with something they perceive to be happening in the classroom, the last person they’ll talk to about it is the teacher. So, instead of having a productive meeting with one parent who has questions, teachers end up having cryptic conversations about how “everyone” feels things are going badly. I really enjoyed exploring the consequences of behind-the-back complaining and gossiping, and the distrust and resentment it breeds between parents and teachers.
You have been both a teacher and a parent in the same school. How have both experiences influenced the writing of this novel?
I’m grateful that for most of my career, I’ve steered clear of my children on a day-to-day basis. Although I technically shared a school with them for eight years, I only overlapped in the same division for four of those. My older son will tell you that the three years we spent in middle school together were the “worst of his life,” and while I roll my eyes at that assessment, I do understand him. Eighth graders, after all, would generally prefer that their mothers not supervise their recess hang-outs.
So, it wasn’t really the tension of my dual parent-teacher roles that influenced this story. Rather, it was the fear and unease I often felt in defending my teaching practice to parents. There is no “neutral” teaching—every decision I make in the classroom is political. Being a good teacher means amplifying marginalized voices, taking action for justice, and allowing space for students to develop and express opinions. That work can be uncomfortable, but it can also be generative and collaborative with parents.
Your characters—the parents, students, and teachers—say and do some outrageous things. Are any of these scenes inspired by real life events?
I think if you ask a suburban or private school teacher to rate the actions of the parents in this book on a scale of 1-10 in terms of outrageousness, we’d come to an average max of 5. What I’m trying to say is, we’ve seen much, much worse—or at the least a lot of the same. People get pretty riled up when they think they’re acting in the best interests of their children.
That said, only one part of this story comes directly from my experience: the comments parents make to Principal Wayne Wallace as he’s conducting his investigation of Isobel’s practice. I lifted those from a survey I was required to send to parents. Of the 155 families surveyed, about 20 responded anonymously—10 who loved me, and 10 who really, really didn’t. I read those survey results more than ten years ago, and the comments still sting. “Marginal and uninspiring” is the one I repeat most often to myself in moments of self-doubt.
Also, in the back half of the aughts, I did teach a lesson about queer theory in which my juniors explored whether Nick Carraway might be gay. I received no complaints about that lesson from students, parents, or school administrators.
This novel touches on how social media has significantly changed how parents and students relate to one another inside and outside of school. What role does social media play in this book and in your real life observations?
I’ve mostly found social media to be a force for good in my teaching career. School Instagram accounts reveal the everyday magic of teaching and learning. Teachers tweet about kids’ amazing successes and the professional resources that have led them to deeper discovery. Parents connect about the challenges of raising kids in various situations. It’s good! But, it requires thoughtfulness and reason, which can fail in moments of stress.
The characters in this novel, both the ones we’re rooting for and against, air private complaints in public forums. They either feel justified because they’re protecting or defending someone; or they make impulsive comments, forgetting that nothing online is really “private.” There are consequences for this behavior, and as adults, we should try to model appropriate control.
But, what fun would “appropriate control” be in a novel?
What are your thoughts on “helicopter parenting” from a teacher’s perspective and also from a parent’s perspective?
From both perspectives, I believe strongly in teaching kids to fail. Rather than trying to insulate our kids from failure, we should normalize it and even celebrate it. It’s cheesy (maybe because Michael Scott also famously adopted it), but my personal mantra comes from Wayne Gretzky: “You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.” I try to share examples of failure from my own life—jobs not gotten, colleges rejected from, races lost, etc. —with the kids in my life. For every success I’ve had, there have been at least equal numbers of failures.
Still, I absolutely share the parental instinct to prevent one’s children from feeling the sting of disappointment. I can’t stand to see my children upset, so I do understand the parents who call me asking me to round their kids’ B-plusses to A-minuses. But I don’t think it’s a good idea, and most often, I won’t do it.
What do you hope readers take away from Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes?
I hope readers find this story addictive and discussable! Many of the parents I’ve told about the book have immediately said, “Oh, it’s probably about me.” I hear their trepidation, and I want to assure them that Julia is not based on a real person. Still, I see myself in her. I understand her motivation, and I hope readers do, too. As I finished writing the book, I realized that both main characters desperately want to be admired—by their families and by their communities. The tension between meeting our own expectations and fulfilling others’ is one I feel a lot in terms of modern motherhood
From a teacher’s perspective, I hope parents might think twice before dashing off a pointed email or making a harsh remark to their kids’ teachers. As parents, we’re not going to agree with every decision a teacher makes. Instead, we have to trust that the teacher is well-trained, well-meaning, and that she/he’s (almost always) doing the best she can. One of the worst parts of being a teacher—the part that’s most often made me consider a career change—is dealing with parents who’ve lost their senses of boundaries. Here’s my advice: if you have a question about a teacher’s practice, ask her/him yourself in a pleasant tone. Don’t text your friends to complain about the teacher or call their boss, or their boss’s boss, at least until you’ve completed this critical first step. Even then, don’t do those things unless your child is in actual peril. Learning to deal with a teacher they don’t love is an important life skill for children, as well.
Kathleen West is a veteran middle and high-school teacher. She graduated with a degree in English from Macalester College and holds a Master’s degree in literacy education from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Minneapolis with her hilarious husband, two sporty sons, and very bad goldendoodle.