Swift Current author and retired teacher Dianne Miller is sharing a lifetime of personal memories as a student and educator in her debut book.
Chalk Dust: Memoirs of a Prairie Teacher will take readers on a journey from a one-room rural school to a career as a teacher and administrator that spanned two provinces and several communities.
The memoir was released recently and there will be a virtual book launch through the Lyric Theatre’s Digital Stage on June 20 at 7 p.m.
“It's pretty exciting,” she said about the publication of her book. “I've done a fair bit of writing over the last 20 years or so, and it's pretty special to hold your own book in your hand, that's for sure, and especially when it has taken a lot of effort and learning how the process of book publishing works. It was quite a learning experience in itself.”
This memoir is the result of a creative process that started after her retirement in 2000 from a a 31-year career in education.
“It's just something that sort of evolved,” she recalled. “It started out as me sort of thinking back and remembering memorable bits of my teaching, memorable students and situations, the stories that you tend to tell and re-tell to people because they were humorous or poignant or sad or exciting. So I had written a number of individual bits and then I started to think maybe I could have enough here that I could put together into book form.”
Miller started her education in a small rural school north of Kinistino with room for nine students. Thereafter she attended schools in Weldon and Birch Hills. She completed her education degree at the University of Saskatchewan and later continued her post-graduate studies at the University of Regina. She taught at schools in Dawson Creek and Pouce Coupe in British Columbia and in Saskatchewan she worked in Saskatoon, Yorkton and then Swift Current.
She was a teacher and administrator at W.A. Beatty Junior High School, Dickson Elementary School and Ashley Park Elementary School in Swift Current, and after her retirement she taught for one semester at the Comprehensive High School.
Three of the nine schools where she worked have been demolished and three have been repurposed. She has experienced a variety of changes to teaching methods during her career, but she believes the personal interactions with students, parents and other teachers still remains an enduring feature of the profession.
“It's the personal connection that to my mind is the huge difference and COVID-19 has really pointed that out,” she said. “Suddenly we're holed up at home, having to attempt to learn and access information online, which is wonderful, because there is so much out there, but I do hope we don't ever lose the one-to-one personal interaction.”
These relationships are evident from stories in her book, which include memories about her former students and colleagues. She also received permission from several previous colleagues to incorporate their experiences as educators in the book.
Miller believes it is important for individuals and families to record their stories, and she hopes her memoir will serve as a reminder to others to do the same.
“I feel our history is being lost if people don't write down their stories and especially today,” she said. “Everything is moving so fast at all times and we tend to write down things in very succinct tweets or e-mails or texts that we use, and we don't take time to process what our lives have been like. And I suppose it says you get older. You begin to look back and think about all of that, but I do know that when families have someone that is willing to look back and record and tell anecdotal things about their family, everyone really appreciates that.”
She enjoyed the experience to recall moments and events from her own life while she worked on the book.
“That's the thing about memory, it's amazing when you focus and when you begin to evoke memory, how they build on one another,” she said. “I started all of this simply thinking I was going to just talk about my teaching career and about memorable students and situations and so on.”
She decided to continue even further back into her own past after her publisher, Heather Nickel of Your Nickel's Worth Publishing in Regina, suggested she should present the stories in the book in a chronological order.
“Then I started to think maybe I should go back even further than my teaching career, because my education as a child was certainly very different from the education that I was part of as a teacher and as an administrator,” Miller said. “So I went right back to a very young age and talked about what it was like going to school in rural Saskatchewan.”
She decided to self-publish her book and Your Nickel's Worth Publishing has been providing the necessary support through the entire process, including editing, design and layout, and marketing. Miller successfully applied for funding through Creative Saskatchewan’s book publishing production grant program, which helped her with the cost of publishing.
She has been able to pursue a life-long interest in creative writing after her retirement. She already loved to write as a child, and in Grade 3 she wrote a play that was performed by classmates. She had time after retirement to complete several courses in creative writing and also attended various workshops and retreats.
“I've really tried to work at the process and tried to become a better writer throughout the years,” she said. “When I look back at the stuff I wrote 20 years ago, I think maybe I have come a little way. So that's satisfying.”
She is a member of the Prairie Quills Writers’ Group in Swift Current. Several of her short stories were published in the group’s anthologies and in other publications. She is interested in historical fiction and she recently used information about her great grandmother’s early life in Poland to create fictional stories.
“I do have a number of short stories already written and I'm going to add to that collection, where I base the fictional characters on students and situations that I observed or dealt with over the years,” she said. “I find that interesting as well, because the plot and the characterizations can be somewhat based on your previous experiences. Right now, I'm interested in doing something in fantasy or science fiction, but I haven't quite nailed down what I might do there yet.”
The virtual book launch at 7 p.m. on June 20 will replace previous plans for an event in Swift Current, which could not take place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This will be the first time the Lyric Theatre’s Write Out Loud program will host a virtual book launch. It will include a musical performance by local musician Dave Cyca. The event can be viewed through the Lyric Theatre’s Facebook or YouTube page.
Copies of Miller’s book Chalk Dust: Memoirs of a Prairie Teacher are available in Swift Current at Pharmasave and it will also be for sale at the Swift Current Museum. It is available online through Amazon, Chapters Indigo, SaskBooks and Your Nickel's Worth Publishing. The book can also be ordered from the author by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.