As the bell rings marking the end of the last full day of classes, eighth graders at Jenkins Middle School flood the hallways kicking up a swirl of notebook paper that settles to the floor like confetti. English teacher Brian Mandabach dispenses a few hugs, gives some last-minute advice, then retreats to his classroom where students loiter, waiting to say their goodbyes.
Handwritten messages cover the room's whiteboard:
"Mandabach, You are the tightest teacher ever. Keep it up."
"Mandabizzle, You were an awesome teacher. Stay cool."
"I'll miss u Mr. Mandabach. Have a Gr8 summer."
Two eighth-grade girls in jeans, dark T-shirts and black eyeliner sit near the teacher's desk. While he searches for a pen to sign their yearbooks, they talk about ...Or Not?, his recently published young-adult novel.
"I think it's a great book," says the first girl.
"Yeah, we kinda have a lot in common with the main character," explains the other.
In fact, the book's main character, Cassie Sullivan, is a smart, funny and liberal-leaning girl who attends middle school in Colorado Springs and likes music, the mountains and writing. After Cassie defends Darwin in science class and refuses to sing "Proud to be an American" in choir, she's taunted by Christian classmates who dub her "Osama O'Sullivan."
The girls acknowledge that bullying is something they've seen. "It's underground like in the book, too," says the first girl. "But, it's not as bad," concedes her friend.
Suddenly the PA booms and the girls jump up. "That's for me. I better go," says one as they disappear. "I'll talk to my mom about being at the book signing ..."
With the school year ending and kids out the door, Mandabach says he looks forward to returning to his offseason writing career, though he knows the time will be short. During the summer that he created Cassie's story, he says, "I slammed out 100,000 words in 10 weeks." This summer he'll be focusing on a new novel in progress. "I'm hoping that by the end of the summer, I'll have something ready to give to my agent," he says.
So how does a 46-year-old man write the first-person account of a 14-year-old girl?
"I pulled the old Our Bodies, Ourselves off the bookshelf a couple of times," he recalls laughing, "but mostly, I just had to get into character."
When he talks about the real events that inspired the story, however, Mandabach grows more serious. Though bullying is a problem he's encountered as a teacher, and students being told they're "going to hell" happens "frequently," a far more tragic event caused him to put pen to paper.
"There was a suicide by a 14-year-old in town, and I was really troubled by it," he says. "I teach that age group, and I was thinking about my own daughter and worrying about her growing up. I just couldn't get it out of my head wondering what would bring a person to that point."
While he says the book he created is not a "suicide book," it explores the experiences that teens go through as they struggle to fit in, to understand themselves and to make sense of life.
"I didn't want to write an "issue' book," he says. "I just wanted to write a "Cassie' book."
He also didn't set out to write a story that was anti-Christian, saying, "Former students and other readers I know who are really strong in their Christian faith, tell me they also recognize the characters in the book as those who profess to be Christians and yet behave in ways that are un-Christian ..."
He continues, "Not that Christian people will pretend to be perfect ... but telling someone they are going to hell doesn't seem to me to be the sort of behavior that your "WWJD' bracelet would encourage you to engage in."
It seems like a middle school English teacher would have a built-in audience of readers, yet Mandabach believes his book is not for everyone. In fact, though most of his students know he's written the book, many haven't read it.
"It's really more for older teens," he says, "but it depends on the kid." And when it comes to determining what's appropriate reading, Mandabach prefers to leave those decisions up to families.
"Parents should always be aware of what their kids are reading," he says.
Outside the classroom, in his writer role, Mandabach feels free to reach out to teen readers. He has a MySpace page, a blog and even a YouTube trailer filmed by a local high school student. At his upcoming book signing he'll read from ...Or Not?, answer questions and give a sneak preview of his novel in progress.
"The characters are 17 and 18. It takes place in the late '70s in suburban Chicagoland. Four friends, two couples and complications ensue."
He pauses and smiles, "Maybe that's all I should say."