I am thrilled to introduce my new friend and fellow Hollins Professor, Claudia Mills. We walk every morning here, so I can attest to what a big heart and inspiring spirit she has. Claudia stopped by to tell us about her novel, Zero Tolerance. Take it away Claudia!...
I don’t usually draw my books from events that happen out in the world. They are typically sparked from things that happened in my own life as a child, or experiences of my two sons as they were growing up. But Zero Tolerance did begin with an actual news story.
Several years ago a middle school near my home in Boulder, Colorado, expelled a student for bringing a knife to school by mistake in her mother’s lunch. I don’t remember any particular details, although the incident triggered a media frenzy. I do remember thinking at the time: what would it be like to be that girl? It wasn’t the unfairness of zero tolerance policies that struck me so much as the human dimension of the story, how an honor student might find her identity unsettled and her world view undermined in the aftermath.
So Zero Tolerance opens when “good girl” Sierra Shepard, honor roll student and member of her middle school’s Leadership Club, dismissive of the “bad kids” who are always doing time in the principal’s office, realizes that she has brought her mother’s lunch to school by mistake: a lunch that has a knife in it for cutting her mother’s apple. Rule follower that she is, Sierra turns in the knife instantly to the lunch lady. But her world turns upside down as she is now facing mandatory expulsion under her school’s zero tolerance policies for drugs and weapons.
Sierra’s principal deeply regrets what’s happening, but is trapped by his own rhetoric: “zero tolerance” means no excuses, no exceptions, ever for anyone. Her attorney father is furious, bent on defending his daughter at any cost, even – or especially – if it means destroying the principal in the process. Her free-spirit mother wants to enroll Sierra in an alternative school for the arts, occasioning marital discord with her husband, who insists that such schools are “strictly for fruits and nuts.” Sierra’s crush, Colin, organizes a petition drive on her behalf: but is he doing it because he likes her or just because he believes it’s the right thing to do? And, of course, I had to create the character of “bad boy” Luke, who shares in-school suspension with Sierra as the date for her fateful hearing draws near.
Writing Zero Tolerance was one of my greatest challenges as an author. Generally when I write a book, I know what has to happen to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion, and readers are going to know that, too, and read on with that expectation. So, if I’m writing Annika Riz, Math Whiz, I know that the story has to end with Annika finding some way to show her math-disdaining friends that math is worth caring about. If I’m writing Kelsey Green, Reading Queen, I know that the story has to end with Kelsey learning how to balance her competitive drive to win a school-wide reading contest with her reasons for loving reading in the first place.
With Zero Tolerance, I truly didn’t know what was going to happen as I wrote. Would Sierra really be expelled? If she was allowed to stay at Longwood Middle School, would she even want to stay? I could hardly wait to sit down with my pen and pad of paper every day to find out what was going to happen next.
I also struggled to find the philosophical core of Sierra’s story. I spent over twenty years as a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, teaching courses on ethical theory and applied ethics. I’ve always been drawn to ethically rich subject matter in my books. But I don’t want to write about an ethical issue where it’s too easy to tell right from wrong. I like to write about hard ethical questions that lack any simplistic resolution.
In Zero Tolerance, it would have been easy to mount an attack on the mindlessly rigid, needlessly harsh zero tolerance policies that have become all too common in schools today. When I give talks about the book to teachers and librarians, many of them share stories of children suspended for having allergy medication in a backpack after a weekend sleepover or for displaying a toy cannon in a Civil War diorama.
But I was more interested in the harder ethical questions. Given that such policies are misguided and unfair, how do we respond? How do we fight morally problematic policies without developing an equally problematic crusading zeal that ignores real human costs and consequences? Caught between two titans, her father and her principal, each bent on advancing his own moral agenda, in the end Sierra has to redefine her own identity and decide what kind of person she wants to be.
Here's Claudia in her favorite writing spot at Hollins University...
Claudia has generously agreed to send a free, signed and dedicated copy of ZERO TOLERANCE to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US to win - enter below.