GEOFFREY CARTER has published short fiction in various literary magazines, including The Licking River Review and Jabberwock. The P.S. Wars: Last Stand at Custer High is his first novel. He also writes a weekly blog, The Pen in Hand, at geoffreymalcolmcarter.com, posting material on a wide array of subjects, including education, the arts, politics, and social commentary.
Geoff Carter attended the Creative Writing Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he earned his PhD in 1999. He has been teaching English in Milwaukee Public Schools for twenty-eight years in both traditional and non-traditional settings, working almost exclusively with at-risk students. He has also taught as a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Mr. Carter lives in Milwaukee and is retired, but he still mentors new teachers and works with expelled students in the Academic Support Program. He is married to an extraordinary woman and is the proud father of a remarkable daughter.
We spoke recently about public schools, the challenges in writing about them, and his favorite cinematic moment, still chilling after twenty years. Order Geoff's book here.
Dave Watson: First, congratulations on the book. Your book is timely, about public schools, yet timeless. How did it come about?
Geoffrey Carter: Thanks, Dave. Well, I’ve worked in and around schools my entire adult life and I felt--I still feel--that public schools have been unfairly targeted as an impediment to our society, and in my experience, that’s simply just not the case. I wanted to give a voice to the people in public education, to tell their side of the story. That’s partly how this all came about.
I wrote The P.S. Wars: Last Stand at Custer High for a couple of reasons.
First of all, I wanted to depict the day-to-day experiences of the students, faculty, and staff of an urban high school. I suspect a lot of people out there don’t have an accurate idea of our students’ daily struggles or the difficulties our teachers and administrators have to overcome in order to provide these children with a proper education. Schools have to cope with outdated supplies, overcrowded classrooms, and deteriorating facilities. Some students have to live with abject poverty, violence, and trauma. I wanted to show the human side of public education, to put a face on the people who are working so hard to make our schools work.
Secondly, I wanted to underscore the value of public education, to show why keeping public schools public is so important. Privatizing schools takes control away from the electorate and puts it into the hands of corporate interests; what we teach our children should not be determined by any sort of corporate agenda. Decisions like these need to be determined by public entities like school boards and state government. I felt that fictionalizing a takeover attempt of an urban school would underscore the real effects of privatization on schools, students, and the community much more vividly. This is also why I wrote The P.S. Wars.
DW: You follow and portray the life of a teacher. Were you a teacher?
GC: Yes. I taught high school English in Milwaukee Public Schools for over twenty-nine years. I taught in classrooms all over the city, working with students from all grades, backgrounds, and ability levels, teaching everything from Shakespeare to science fiction. For my last twenty-one years, I was assigned to a specialized program called Home and Hospital where we taught homebound students who were too seriously ill to go to school. Students assigned to the program suffered from cancer, leukemia, PTSD, or other serious afflictions. We taught them in their own homes, which was an education in itself. Presently I am still working part-time for MPS, mentoring new teachers and counseling expelled students.
DW: Do you see yourself in the story?
GC: Yeah, I guess there’s quite a bit of myself in Dave Bell (the protagonist), although it wasn’t originally my intention to do that. But when I started to draw from my own classroom experiences for the novel, Dave’s character began echoing my own sensibilities and reacting as I would have in a similar situation. This wasn’t deliberate, but it seemed natural and authentic for the character, so I stuck with it. Dave is also a wine enthusiast, like me. Somehow that snuck in there, too.
DW: Where do you see public schools and funding today? Wisconsin in particular has gone, over the last twenty years or so apparently, from an abundance of teachers to a shortage.
GC: Things aren’t very good for public schools right now. Governor Evers is doing his best to restore the funding cuts from Act 10, especially to special education, but he’s not getting much cooperation from the Assembly or the Senate. Teaching used to a very solid career in Wisconsin. Good health benefits, an excellent pension system, and an equitable salary schedule made it very attractive to young people considering education as a career path. But ever since union protections were hamstrung by Act 10, nearly all of these benefits have been cut or curtailed. Wisconsin used to be a national leader in public education, a mecca for new teachers. Now we’re struggling to maintain coverage in our classrooms.
I do have to say that I’ve had the privilege of mentoring many new teachers over the past six years and have been impressed by the levels of commitment, professionalism, and empathy for the students they serve. They’re very good teachers. I’m just afraid we won’t be able to keep them. Most of them want to continue teaching but are concerned about the future of the profession. We need to restore teaching as a career in Wisconsin.
DW: Was it hard to decide what to leave in and what to take out of a story?
GC: It was. I had to cut out quite a bit of material because my first draft was entirely too long. It wasn’t too hard at first, but as the process went on, I found myself having to cut out scenes that I was really fond of, including parts of Dave’s backstory and some of my favorite classroom scenes. There’s actually a place on my website where I’ve posted a few of my favorite outtakes: The Cutting Room Floor. But for all that, getting the book down to a more manageable size tightened it up and made it a better story. In hindsight, I probably could have afforded to cut even more.
DW: What’s next for you?
GC: I’m working on the final draft on my next novel, tentatively entitled Thicker Than Water. It’s sort of a Cain and Abel story that takes place in a town called Moon Lake, located in Northern Wisconsin. Two brothers, Will and Eddy LeBarron, are struggling over control of a huge parcel of virgin woodland that they inherited in an unexpected windfall. Will, a DNR agent, wants to keep the land pristine and untouched while Eddy, a real estate agent, wants to develop it all. The people of Moon Lake, greedy for the money, fall in behind Eddy. In order to preserve the land he loves, Will is forced to single-handedly fight a Guerilla war against family and friends, using the forest as both his weapon and his refuge.
I also write a weekly post on my blog: geoffreymalcolmcarter.com concerning topics ranging from popular culture to politics to arts and writing.
DW: Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment? One that inspires you to this day?
GC: There are so many good ones. I love the final plot twist of The Sixth Sense, partly because it’s brilliantly conceived and written, and secondly, because it forces the viewer to look back and reappraise everything she’s seen in a new light. Doing that, reviewing it, and realizing that Shyamalan had left all the clues out there in plain sight is invigorating to me as a writer.
Clip: The Sixth Sense
Founder and editor of Movies Matter, Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.