Thursday, January 23, 2003

Retired teacher writes book on true stories at CEHS

Published in the Current

As Cape Elizabeth High School deals with the issues of student drinking and discipline, a new book by a retired CEHS English teacher offers a look inside the drama of everyday high school life.

Sally Martin retired “a few years ago” from CEHS, after 20 years, and still lives off Old Ocean House Road, near the cove that figures prominently in her work of fiction, “The Shape of Dark.”

Based on her experiences in the classroom, and including characters based on real Cape Elizabeth figures and events, the book addresses complex issues of child abuse, infidelity, teen loyalty and underage drinking. The book is self published.

“If only people knew the drama that goes on every day in a high school classroom, they’d be astounded,” Martin said.

She kept personal journals, just as she asked her students to do, and in them recorded not only details of her personal and family life, but also noteworthy incidents from work.

“My journals have really been the foundation,” Martin said.

Much of the conflict in the book is between kids and their parents, and between parents from different families.

It may touch a raw nerve in Cape Elizabeth, where school officials, parents and students have been dealing for months with the issues related to teen alcohol use. It’s not a typical book about high school.

“Most high school dramas are about schools that have clear reasons for turmoil,” Martin said. The town in her book, Cape Mariana, is based on Cape Elizabeth, which appears outwardly to be a pleasant, tranquil place for families to live. The image, she said, is that Cape is immune from problems plaguing larger towns and cities, but that’s not true.

“Kids who are privileged in a community like this,” can carry huge weights of worry and stress, Martin said. “(Feelings) can be much more dangerous because the kids squash them down, or they anesthetize themselves, which they do here,” Martin said.

Part of it is parents, she said. “In an upper-middle-class community, the parents don’t even have time to eat meals with their kids,” Martin said.

This has its cost, and leads to kid-on-kid cruelty, which Martin said is “abetted” by parents’ lack of attention to their children. “The cushion of self-esteem that these kids can fall back on is not there,” she said.

She said she has seen Cape kids change. A few years back, she said, the kids were all friends in school. Even now, when her children, all grown, get together with high school friends, the group is large and inclusive.

“There was never any sort of backstabbing,” Martin said, except for some girls’ “shenanigans,” which were part of the normal growing-up processes.

Now, however, she sees the kids “retreating into themselves.”

“The Shape of Dark,” the first of a planned trilogy, opens the door to a wide range of small-town social dynamics, including teens exploring sexuality, students who resent teachers for having romantic interests in their parents, a doctor who turns a blind eye to child abuse because the abuser is a friend, and parents who bluster and bully to cover up their children’s wrongdoing.

“I’ve been fascinated with the phenomenon of this kind of school system,” Martin said. “This raises a lot of themes I want to explore further.”

She said the book is appropriate for high school students as well as their parents. “One of my goals has always been to make reading accessible,” Martin said. “I think high school kids could really relate to this.”

Her former students certainly do. “The kids have been coming to get the book in droves,” Martin said. “They want to see themselves.”

They may also want to relive – or perhaps not – important moments in their high school careers. “Many things really happened in Cape Elizabeth High School,” Martin said.

That includes students streaking through the cafeteria, and what Martin called “the geeky freshman who got dumped in the trash can” and was rescued by one of the most popular kids in school.

“Essentially, I’ve been working on this for 35 years,” Martin said.

Her feedback so far from readers has indicated that they enjoy the detailed pictures of classroom and school scenes. They also enjoy the pacing. “This is a heavily plotted beach book,” Martin said.

She is already at work on the second book in the trilogy, tentatively titled “A Gathering of Shadow,” which looks at kids’ cruelty to kids and how parents are involved in that dynamic.

“Parents abet cruelty to kids,” Martin said. The subject matter will be more serious and, she said, “darker” than the first book.

The second and third books, she said, will also be set in Cape Mariana, but will have totally different characters and plots. Some characters, like the school principal, may reappear in small roles, she said.

The book is available at Nonesuch Books and Borders in South Portland, and at Longfellow Books in Portland.

She looks forward to the community’s reaction.

“I think people will read this book and say, ‘No town is like this,’” Martin said. “Well, yes it is. This town.”