Through The Wire [This Is Still Not A Test]

Jose VilsonJose, Writing

No one asked me to write This Is Not A Test, but I still felt it necessary.

About two years ago, I was in the middle of one of the weirdest weeks of my life, capped off with my father passing away and me finding out 30 minutes before class started. My shoulders buckled, my face felt pulled an inch closer to the earth, and my feet felt light. I knew there was nothing I could do about it since his body was over a thousand miles away in Florida.

When I informed Liliana Segura, my editor, that my father passed, she asked if I needed time. I said, “Nah, gimme more.”

For about a year or two prior to my father passing, I struggled with this idea of a published book. How many people back then got their Internet-based thoughts turned into an IRL cover-bound thingie? In education, the chances were slimmer. I found myself staring at the Education section of Barnes & Noble, doing my research on what publishers call the market. I didn’t know that publishers paid for book placement, and whether the covers faced the customers or the spine did. All I knew was that there were no books that truly spoke to me from a K-12 educator as a K-12 educator.

With all due respect to folks to folks I call colleagues or even friends, all I saw were education professors, politicians, billionaires, journalists, and plenty of former educators who had friends in mainstream media spaces. What was a current classroom teacher to do? I tried the education publisher route, only to be rebuffed for being instructional enough. I tried the agent route, only to be rejected dozens of times, many of them citing that they didn’t know how to sell my story. I tried the direct publisher route, and, akin to a freshly-minted college grad, I was asked to have at least five years experience that I couldn’t get without them. I almost went the self-publishing route.

Julie Fain and Haymarket Books rebuffed that notion. Thankfully.

But the book writing challenge was just beginning. People look at a final product and think it’s over from the minute it’s submitted, ignoring the rings in the author’s eyes when they’ve finished. I insisted to my editors that this needed to be great. Being a K-12 educator of color would already deter folks from giving me props as a writer. My editor kept kicking my butt, marking up my papers, sometimes chopping out full graphs while I whimpered. I must have told myself that I’d quit writing the book 20 times in the shower, 10 on my way back from school.

My father’s passing changed all of that.

Real editing is a full rewrite of a book, and it made me an infinitely better writer as a result. [Besides Luz putting up with my crap while I had my nose stuck in my Macbook Pro, I have to thank Haymarket’s team for taking a chance on my ideas.] I read James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son like they were psalms, daily messages carrying me to the January deadline. In some ways, the edits made me reflect on my life’s purpose, and why this book was necessary for mass consumption, but more so for me. I was giving away almost three decades of my memories and putting them in the hands of complete strangers, and that kept me up at night the way my most badly-behaved students do.

Yet, I went back the next day As I always do.

“Jose, here’s a few more chapters.”

“I’m on this.”

“Jose, this probably doesn’t work.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you think about this edit?”

“It’s fine, but I’m probably going to add like three paragraphs here because this idea needs to stay.”

Liliana and I (and then Sarah Grey and I) go back and forth over e-mail, kicking this manuscript into shape.

Yes, I’m glad thousands of you have the book. No, I haven’t received any awards per se, though Teaching for Change recognized it as one of its best books of 2014. Yes, it got endorsements from all your favorites, an observable wide range of folks. The folks expected the resistance to current education reforms. The folks didn’t expect to see the love and joy with which I approach this profession, and perhaps its ominous end. But I’m perhaps the proudest of the moments when someone writes me and says, “This book kept me teaching.”

This book kept me living, so I know the feeling.