Recounting the high school experience

Chad Pelley's latest book 'Before I Was Me' aimed at teenage audience

Published on January 12, 2013
Chad Pelley
— Submitted photo

I saw your mother in the grocery store the other day, looking lost in the bakery aisle. She had a loaf of bread in her hand, holding it by the twist tie end of the bag, so it was swaying back and forth like a pendulum, the way you must have been swaying, when she walked into the shed that day, looking for a gardening tool or whatever. Thinking you were at school, finding missing angles in triangles and passing notes to Jenny B. Living, happy. Okay.

- Excerpt from Chad Pelley's, "Before I Was Me."

No one ever finds it easy being a teenager. When you're that age - and adults forget this, says local writer Chad Pelley - you feel things at 150 per cent; more intensely, more passionately, more immediately.

Pelley, himself, admits he didn't find junior high and high school as challenging as some of his friends. Specifically three of them, one of whom killed himself, one who was raped, and one who was tormented at school because she had had an abortion.

When Pelley was approached by Fierce Ink Press Co-op Ltd. to participate in an e-book series, he drew on the lives of his schoolmates and of Amanda Todd, to come up with "Before I Was Me," his newest short story.

Amanda, a Grade 10 student in B.C., killed herself last October after posting a video on YouTube in which she used flash cards to tell a story of being blackmailed online, beaten and bullied.

"I saw that video the day after Fierce Ink approached me, cue card after cue card laid out. It was brutal and it reminded me of what high school was like," Pelley says.

"I decided to use three different things that happened around me in high school and blend them into one story, more like a collective high school experience."

Pelley is an award-winning writer, known for his novel "Away from Everywhere" and his blog, "Salty Ink."

"Before I Was Me" is a work of creative non-fiction; a note written to a high school girlfriend who had killed herself 16 years earlier.

Things change, every year, and I wish someone had told you that if you skip out on one year, the way that you did, you'd skip out on 60 more that would be both better and worse, but always different, than the one you called your last.

While the elements of Pelley's story are true, he has used his creative license. In his writing, the rape, abortion and suicide happens to one person, his girlfriend, instead of three.

They are events he says he's still haunted by, wondering what went wrong and what, if anything, he could have done to help his friends at the time. He sees his late friend's mother around often and fantasizes about asking her why he did what he did, and wonders what happened to his then-girlfriend to make her change so much after she was raped at a party.

"I'm exceptionally open, and I don't get embarrassed by stuff - I don't have that gene or trait," he says.

"I'm fine with putting it on the page because I think it comes off more effectively, and that's what I was trying to do: make a really powerful, resonant story as much as I could. I was trying to write about how I was affected.

The point of the story, Pelley says, is humans generally don't discover who they are until they're at least in their 20s. Teenagers who commit suicide never get to come to this realization, and miss out on ever becoming who they were meant to be.

"That's what bothers me, and should bother them," he explains.

"Parents with teenagers in high school forget what it's like to feel life so intensely. It's easy to shrug off whatever's going on in their lives as being silly. Like people passing mean notes - it's ridiculous looking back on it, but it affects their lives so much at the time.

"There are still 100,000 kids in Canada a year that commit suicide, and I had no idea until I saw a link after that YouTube video. Maybe effectively communicating with these kids on a personal level is the way to go, because something's not working.

Pelley wrote the story to appeal to a teenage audience - the writing is direct, less poetic and subtle than his other projects, but his use of description and the cadence of his words are powerful.

It's the math of your decision that haunts me. The average Canadian woman lives 972 months. Four divided by 972 was not even one per cent of your life. But you let grade twelve matter more than the 99% of your life that had happened, or didn't get to happen. Those 10 kids in Grade 12: they loved you, then they didn't, and then they would've loved you again.

A handful of award-winning and acclaimed authors from Atlantic Canada are participating in Fierce Ink's project, which was inspired by syndicated columnist Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign for LGBT youth.

The aim of the digital imprint, Fierce Ink says, is to give a voice to teenage issues from the perspective of adults who've been there, and who've gone on to achieve success.

Other Newfoundland and Labrador writers taking part include "Moonlight Sketches" author Gerard Collins and Jamie Fitzpatrick, who won the province's Fresh Fish Award for emerging writers with "You Could Believe in Nothing."

Twenty per cent of the proceeds from the digital sale of the stories will go to a charity of the author's choice: Collins has chosen For the Love of Learning, Fitzpatrick has picked Choices for Youth, and Pelley's charity is the Canadian Association of Suicide Prevention.

The stories are available for sale online at Twitter: @tara_bradbury