ASJA is going full-tilt for its 70th anniversary! Along with the 70th Anniversary Gala on Thursday, May 17 and the annual New York conference Navigate. Motivate. Captivate., Friday and Saturday, May 18-19, an auction to benefit the ASJA Educational Foundation is scheduled for May 10-28. Watch this space and your email for details on the many exciting opportunities awaiting lucky bidders!
Member’s Day, May 18, will receive a stellar kickoff with keynoter Aimee Ross. A nationally award-winning educator who’s been teaching high school English at her alma mater in Loudonville, Ohio, for the past twenty-six years, Aimee’s first book, Permanent Marker: A Memoir (KiCam) was just released in March. She has also been published in nextavenue.org, www.lifein10minutes.com, Teaching Tolerance magazine, and others and had her work anthologized in Beauty around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2017); Scars: An Anthology (Et Alia, 2015); and in Today I Made a Difference: A Collection of Inspirational Stories from America’s Top Educators (Adams, 2009). Her passion for learning and teaching about the Holocaust has led to fellowships and study tours; online and print published study guides and lessons; and numerous presentations, both nationally and internationally. While Aimee won’t reveal exactly what she’s going talk about, she did offer some juicy hints and advice. (Excerpts from this interview originally appeared in the blog, Books by Women).
Tell us about yourself. How you did you get from there to here and back again? Ever since I was little, I wanted to be a teacher. I got my degree in education from Ohio State University in Columbus then went back to my hometown of Loudonville to teach at my own high school. I remember watching the Disney Teacher of the Year Awards on TV while I was in college and thinking, “I want that to be me one day.”
After some time [teaching], I realized I was only a few course hours away from a raise in salary and saw a one-week class on the Holocaust being offered that fulfilled the requirement. It was totally random; I had two young children at home and it fit in with my schedule. It changed my life.
How did Holocaust history inform your teaching and writing? It really lit a fire under me. I thought, as a young mother who couldn’t imagine anyone taking my child away from me, that I’ve got to learn as much as I can about this. So I really threw myself into it—getting a fellowship at the Holocaust Museum [in Washington DC] and creating and teaching a course on the Holocaust at my high school, which in 2003 won the Museum’s Exemplary Lessons contest. They sent a camera crew out to our classroom and filmed us. In 2004, my dream came true and I won a Disney American Teacher Award.
Along with being asked to be a regional educator for the Museum and going on study trips to Germany, Poland and Israel, I was also part of a group of teachers who traveled around the US and internationally, educating other teachers about the Holocaust. In 2009, in addition to having my essays appear in Today I Made a Difference with other Disney teachers, I also won a Time Warner Cable National Teacher Award. That year, I was also co-developer of online educational materials for the USC Shoah Foundation Institute’s Living Histories: Seven Voices from the Holocaust and asked to speak on a panel at the Museum’s National Remembrance Days in Washington.
My head got too big and I thought, here I am traveling the world teaching other teachers, and I’m pretty good at it, so why I am I still teaching teenagers in high school English? At the time, I was also miserable in my marriage. I told my husband of 18 years that I wanted a divorce and three days later, had a heart attack doctors said was brought on by high blood pressure and stress. Fortunately, there was no permanent damage. Five months to the day after the heart episode, I was driving some girls home from dance camp and a 19-year-old under the influence driver ran through a stop sign, plowing directly into my car. He was killed, and I sustained multiple fractures, pierced lungs, among other complications. I was in the hospital for a month. (He hadn’t been drinking—he had two different drugs in his system.)
How did writing your memoir and reliving your most painful experiences affect you? When I first started writing, it was only about the accident. Before I knew it, the story of my divorce and heart attack was bubbling out of me without control. Within months, I realized that even though I’d chosen to get divorced, the heart attack and accident just happened to me; my first reaction was that karma was paying me back. Guilt made me wonder if I’d deserved all of what happened, and ultimately, that’s when I started asking the bigger questions of myself through writing that most definitely—as the book explains—became my therapy.
I also went back to the classroom, although I was given the option not to. It was all about returning to who I really was.
What makes a great memoir, from both a writer and reader’s standpoint?
No matter the writer’s experience, [it] makes you feel as if you have been through it with her. Not only does the writer have a voice that’s relatable and realistic, her story has universal qualities that help you identify with it while making you feel something. After hearing the same advice over and over again, from editors, writers, and publishers alike, I decided, “Hey, maybe they all know something I don’t (duh, Aimee),” so here it is: Figure out the story you want to tell and why it needs to be told. Then get it all out in writing. Every bit of it. After you do that, then look for patterns and similarities and gaps or ways you could experiment or change the structure.
What advice would you give to writers?
When it comes right down to it, most of us want to be published by the big guys. But it’s such a saturated market right now. So maybe it’s more about not only finding the right story but also feeding your soul as a writer. What is a good story and how can you tell it so other people care? Are you happy with the story you want to tell? As human beings, we look for stories that we can relate to—it’s how we make sense of our world.
The New York City Conference is nigh! Have you made your reservations? Along with Aimee are two other amazing keynoters: Dan Jones (editor of New York Times’ Modern Love column) and Katherine Reynolds Lewis (ASJA member, journalist and author of The Good News About Bad Behavior). Get your tickets before it’s too late!