“To Kill a Mockingbird” is always the first book Bruce Ingram assigns his ninth-grade English students.
This year, Ingram’s co-teacher at Lord Botetourt High School suggested he start with another book. His own.
“I said I don’t know about that. I mean, bumping ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ for me?” Ingram said.
His co-teacher, Carrie Baldacci, pressed her point: Ingram’s book, “Ninth Grade Blues,” is one in which freshmen students could immediately see themselves.
“She said start off with that and they’ll be on your side for the rest of the year, because it’s about them,” Ingram said.
On the first day of school when Ingram passed out the books, he held his breath to see how students would react. Ingram didn’t point out it was his own book until a day later when a student made the connection between the name on the cover and the man standing at the front of the classroom.
“One of them was like, hey, did you write this?” Ingram recalled. “You don’t ever expect this.”
Ingram had very low expectations when he started writing the book in the summer of 2016. The English and creative writing teacher has published six other books and thousands of magazine articles but they are all non-fiction. His attempts at short-story writing had ended in frustration and rejection.
But when he sat down to write what became “Ninth Grade Blues,” it came easily. It was a book he wanted to write, one he thought the students he teaches who struggle with reading could appreciate. There are books about zombies and vampires that meet that bill, but few about real life.
“I was writing this book for kids who aren’t readers,” Ingram said. “They’re crying out for this.”
With a few chapters written, he showed a publisher, who was interested enough to ask Ingram to finish the book. It tells the first-person stories of four students — outdoorsy Luke, anxious Elly, athletic Marcus and studious Mia — along with their difficulties adjusting to life in high school.
Ingram, 65, has taught in Botetourt for about 30 years. He’s witnessed plenty of teenage drama in that time but is quick to credit his students as the experts when it comes to what it’s like being a teenager in 2017.
That’s why, at administrators’ urging, Ingram looped his students into the editing process. Last year’s creative writing class, to whom the book is dedicated, did line edits and picked out the cover. They watched the process of publishing a book from start to finish.
Now that the publisher has agreed to a sequel, this year’s creative writing class is going through the steps again and helping edit “Tenth Grade Angst.” In his English classes, students now get the benefit of reading the now-published “Ninth Grade Blues” alongside its author.
“I think it’s a pretty wonderful opportunity for them,” said Kendel Lively, the school’s librarian.
Ingram’s students delight in catching their teacher’s grammatical mistakes and are not shy about letting him know when the writing doesn’t sound authentic. Ingram accepts the criticism cheerfully.
“He had the word ‘stinking’ in there and I just said no kid would ever say that,” senior Reese Austin said.
Editing Ingram’s work has required the creative writing class get in the characters’ heads to keep the tone consistent. (Recognizing tone is a Standards of Learning skill that students are expected to master, but Ingram only brings up the standards in class fleetingly: “We’re covering the SOLs, but I’m trying to do it in a way that makes sense to them.”)
“I’m not sure this word is appropriate,” senior Haley Davis said, flagging a section where Luke described his geometry class as “purgatory.”
“Too harsh? I worried about that,” Ingram said. “What would you change it to? … Can anybody substitute something?”
The class decided to strike it from the sentence entirely.
“He values our opinion,” Davis said. “That’s just cool that he cares that much about what we think.”
Some of the creative writing students who edited the first book are now at work on the second. When there’s a question about what a character would do or say, Ingram turns to them. Would Luke describe his crush Mia as one of the “prettiest” girls in the school, or one of the “hottest” girls?
“Luke’s not going to say ‘hottest,’ ” junior Madeline Deskins said, settling the matter.
In his ninth- grade English class, Ingram’s students are still watching Luke and Mia’s relationship unfold. This week they picked up a class read-aloud in a chapter where Luke is trying to plan the pair’s first date.
“This moves fast,” Anthony King said.
“Well it’s chapter 41 and he’s holding her hand for the first time,” Ingram said. “I don’t know if that’s fast.”
Luke’s distress and uncertainty over this task — what do girls want? — resonated with the ninth-graders, who opened up about their own dating foibles and the awkwardness of asking someone out.
“The worst you can get is a no,” Curtis Kemper said.
“No, that’s not the worst you can get at all,” King said.
It’s nice to read a book about problems he and his classmates are confronting currently, Kemper said.
“Instead of it being these weird books from times way before any of us were born, it’s based on stuff going on now and people problems that are going on now,” he said. “It’s more relatable than other books that we usually read.”