DIY High

DIY High: On the plight of the Working Poor in Small Town America

Thursday, August 1st, I had the opportunity to present my very first formal book reading of my new novel, DIY High, at Ryburn Place, the former Sprague’s Super Service on Historic Route 66 in Bloomington, Illinois. If you’re ever in Central Illinois, USA – especially if you’re a Route 66 fan – Ryburn Place is a must-see!

Amanda L Webster read from her new novel, DIY High August 1st at Ryburn Place in Bloomington, Illinois
Amanda L Webster read from her new novel, DIY High, August 1st at Ryburn Place in Bloomington, Illinois.

Because I was speaking at a Route 66-themed venue, I tailored my talk to the location. The following is a transcript of portions of the presentation (minus introductions and other extraneous materials regarding the location and timing of refreshments at the event.) In addition to discussing modern life along Route 66, I also read a brief snippet from DIY High, which is also included below. Enjoy!

Working Poor Americans on Today’s Historic Route 66

DIY High isn’t about Route 66, but it does take place in a small town on this iconic highway. It is a small town, much like the central Illinois town where I live, with its busy truck stop and historic Route 66 tourist spots. The Paul Bunyan statue down the road in another town even makes a cameo appearance in this book.

As a resident and an elected trustee of my small town, I have seen first-hand how travelers from all over the world are drawn to Route 66. On any given weekend, you can find a line of cars with license plates from all over the country, parked downtown in front of our vintage arcade. Individual citizens like Terri Ryburn (current owner and restorer of Ryburn Place/Sprague’s Super Service) and small-town governments like our village board, have made tremendous efforts to preserve this history while also contributing to their local economies. The future of Route 66 is bright.

Yes, it is easy to get caught up in the nostalgia of Route 66. But there is a dark side to many of the small towns that line Route 66 today. There is the historic Route 66 that the tourists see, and then there is the old highway that modern residents may take little time to notice. When you live in a historic location, the history often recedes from view in your day-to-day life.

Beyond the giant, hot dog-bearing Paul Bunyan statues and the nostalgic cafes, beyond the restored neon signs, the freshly painted downtown buildings, and their former upstairs apartments turned Air B & B rentals, these small towns are like many other rural communities across the United States, complete with small-town problems like poverty and opioid addiction.

While these issues may also exist in larger towns and cities, the residents of small towns encounter additional hardships due to the isolation they experience from the lack of amenities like public transportation and grocery stores. One need look no farther than today’s political climate to see that many small town and rural Americans feel like they have been forgotten. These are the people I wanted to write about in my novel, and I especially wanted to focus on the working poor: those who work hard, often at multiple jobs, but are stuck under the poverty line.

Many of the programs that exist to help the poor ignore the working poor. These programs are often aimed at those who are unable to work. Or they simply miss the mark because those who run the programs have zero understanding of the lived experiences of the working poor. Researchers can write reports and give you statistics that TELL you what life is like for the working poor in America, but it often takes a work of fiction to SHOW it to you in a way that makes you truly understand the crises that are faced by everyday Americans.

In writing this novel, I wanted to SHOW what it’s really like to be a working poor family, while also addressing some of the so-called “diseases of despair” that can further complicate matters for already struggling families. For our protagonist’s single mother, chronic pain leads to a prescription opioid addiction. She was once a great mom who worked hard and sacrificed so much for her four kids, but now—well, now she’s lost her job and is falling deeper and deeper into her addiction while her oldest daughter is left to hold her family together.

In the excerpt that you are about to read, we find our protagonist’s family without a working vehicle just days away from what promises to be a bleak Christmas morning. Their van will be in the shop until after the holidays, and the only shopping venue in their small town is a truck stop. Worried that her younger siblings won’t have any presents under the Christmas tree, Gabby skips school to remedy the problem on her own. She rides her bike south on Route 66 to the next town, which has a Dollar General store and spends her own money to buy presents for her family. And now, it’s Christmas morning:

DIY High Excerpt

Ben and Owen shook Gabby and Meg awake early on Christmas morning. The floodlight that illuminated the parking lot behind their building still poked through the gap between their bedroom curtains. Gabby yawned and tried to roll away from Owen.

“It’s four o’clock in the morning,” Meg said. “Go away, morons.”

“Santa came,” Ben said. “Come on! You know we can’t open our presents until everyone is up.”

Gabby grinned, remembering how she had snuck downstairs the previous night after everyone had gone to bed to put her gifts under the tree. It was kind of fun playing Santa. She didn’t even care if her brothers didn’t realize the gifts were from her.

“Did Santa really come?” Meg asked. “Like, did you go downstairs and verify that there were actually presents under the tree?” She hadn’t believed in Santa for several years, but she did still pretend for her little brothers.

“Yes, I did,” Owen said. “Santa came, and there are presents under the tree to prove it.”

“Of course, Santa came,” Ben said. “Why wouldn’t he? We’ve all been good this year.”

“I don’t know,” Meg said. “I’ve heard Santa doesn’t like poor kids. I thought maybe he’d decide to skip over us this year.”

“Meg!” Gabby sat up and swung her feet over the side of the bed. The floor was icy against her bare toes. She reached over to her nightstand and grabbed the threadbare socks she had taken off the night before. She couldn’t stand to sleep with socks on. Once she had her socks on her feet, she got up. “Come on, Meg. Let’s go see what Santa brought us.”

The boys beamed at them and ran out the bedroom door.

“If ‘Santa’ actually came,” Meg said, making air quotes with her fingers, “maybe he brought me a cell phone.” Her eyes lit up at the idea of even that slim possibility, and she hopped out of her bed to follow her brothers downstairs.

Gabby met her mom outside the bathroom. Kim’s skin was pale and ragged. She had dark circles under her eyes. “Morning,” she mumbled. She grabbed the banister to steady herself.

“Are you okay?” Gabby asked.

Kim shook her head slowly. “I’m really hurting this morning,” she said. She stared down the long flight of stairs. “Maybe we should have set the Christmas tree up in my room this year.”

“We’ll get you set up on the couch with your heat pad and some hot cocoa,” Gabby said. “I’ll bring you breakfast on the couch, and you won’t have to move for the rest of the day.”

Kim gave Gabby a wan smile. “Except to go to the bathroom,” she said. “Someday, I want to have a house with my bedroom and a bathroom on the first floor so I don’t have to manage stairs anymore.”

“Come on, you guys!” Owen yelled up the stairs at them. “We want to open our presents!”

“I’ll be right there,” Gabby said. She needed to use the bathroom first. She ducked inside while her mom dragged herself downstairs, one painful step at a time.

When Gabby finally joined her family around their small, fake Christmas tree in the living room, she was surprised to find a few extra gifts underneath. When had her mom managed to go get presents? The holiday season had held up their van repairs, and they didn’t expect to have their vehicle back until later that week.

“It’s my turn to play Santa,” Owen said. He had already picked through the gifts and arranged them into tiny piles, with two gifts in each pile. He checked each of the tags and handed a package to each person in the family. He started with the newspaper advertisers that Gabby had wrapped her gifts in.

Meg held up the blouse that Gabby had bought her. “Oh, this is cute,” she said. Then she grabbed the tag that Gabby had forgotten to remove from the shirt’s armpit. Meg wrinkled her nose in disgust. “Dollar General,” she said.

“That’s the only store I could get to.” Gabby hissed at her.

Meg shrugged, balled the blouse up in her lap, and seemed to forget about it while she waited for her next gift.

“I could tell those were from you, Gabby,” Owen said. “You’re the only person who didn’t get a present wrapped in newspaper.”

Ben held up the toy handcuffs and sheriff’s badge that he’d found inside his package. “Thanks, Gabby,” he said. “I always wanted handcuffs.”

“Yes, thank you,” Kim said. “I can’t wait to take a nice relaxing bath in these bath salts with my candle burning next to me.”

Owen handed out the next round of presents. There was something for their mom in this round as well. “That’s funny,” Ben said. “Santa doesn’t usually bring mom anything. I guess she’s been extra good this year.”

They all tore into their packages at once. Meg gasped as she unrolled the ugliest handmade scarf and lopsided gloves any of them had ever seen in their entire lives. “What the hell is this?” Meg asked.

“Meg, language,” Kim said.

The boys cracked up laughing.

“Meg must have been extra bad this year,” Owen said.

Gabby stared at the toy horse that she had opened. It was something she might have played with when she was Owen’s age. Maybe. Was her mom losing her mind along with her body?

Meg threw the scarf down. “This is ridiculous,” she said. “I want a cell phone.”

Ben’s package had a miniature remote-controlled drone inside, and Owen’s had a warm new winter coat.

“Awesome!” Ben said.

“No fair,” Owen said. “Why does Ben get a drone, and I just get a coat?”

Kim’s face had grown even paler than before. Tears welled up in her eyes. “I—I—”

“It’s okay, Mom,” Gabby said. Her own throat was thick with the tears she refused to shed in front of her mom. She didn’t want to make her feel even worse.

“No, it’s not okay,” Kim said. “I put our names on the list at one of the churches so we could be on their angel tree. It looks like some of the people who got our names thought we needed fun presents, and others thought we should have something practical.”

“Apparently, they thought I was still ten,” Gabby said. She tried to force a laugh so her mom would know she was trying to make light of the situation. But, she couldn’t help feeling as though she had been punched in the stomach.

“So, Santa didn’t come?” Owen asked.

“Why does Santa hate poor people?” Ben said. “It’s not our fault. We didn’t do anything wrong!” Tears began to stream down his face.

Kim leaned forward and grabbed her youngest son. He was small, but she still winced with the pain it caused her to drag his little body toward her to cuddle him into her lap. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I should have opened the presents and made sure everything was fair before I put them under the tree.”

“This is stupid.” Meg jumped to her feet, letting the presents in her lap tumble to the floor. She stomped upstairs. The whole house shook when she slammed her bedroom door.

Owen clenched his coat in his hands and stared at Ben’s drone. “I don’t know why you’re crying,” he said. “You got something you wanted for Christmas.”

“So did you,” Gabby said. “You’ve been wanting one of those foam dart guns forever.” Besides, she had ridden her bike five miles each way in the freezing cold to get it for him.

“Gabby’s right,” Kim said. She patted Ben’s leg. “It’s not like we didn’t get anything. Some people have even less than we do this morning. And I know Gabby worked hard to buy us all presents.”

“I’ll share my drone with you,” Ben said.

“That’s the spirit,” Kim said. “And, Ben will end up with Owen’s coat when he outgrows it anyway, so it will all be even in the end.”

“You boys can have my horse, too,” Gabby said. She handed her package to Owen and smiled.

Owen sniffled, but he smiled and took the horse. “I’m going to name him Cracker Jack,” he said.

“We can take turns being sheriff,” Ben said. “And, Cracker Jack can be our horse.”

“Here, you be sheriff first,” Owen said. He handed the horse to Ben. Then, he grabbed the drone. “You’re going to have a hard time catching the bad guys on your horse when they try to escape in their drone!”

The boys were all smiles now as they laughed and tore the toys out of their packages. Soon, they were running around the house making up a whole game scenario as they went.

“Oh, the joys of having a rich imagination,” Kim said. She struggled to pull herself up off the floor. Then, she moved to the couch and settled in at one end.

“Too bad Meg doesn’t have any imagination left,” Gabby said. She started to pick up the wrapping paper and toy packaging from the floor.

Kim laughed. “To be fair,” she said. “It would take an awful lot of imagination to turn that ugly scarf and gloves into something worth having.”

The People of DIY High

You’ll meet a lot of characters in DIY High. Of course, there’s Gabby, the smart and responsible teenager, who wants more than anything to go to college. But, how can she when her mom’s prescription opioid addiction gets so out of control that she has to rely on Gabby to support their family? Gabby leaves school to work full-time, and her mom is supposed to homeschool her so she can finish high school and go on to community college. But Gabby quickly learns that she’s going to have to homeschool herself if she ever wants to get anywhere in life.

Next, there’s Gabby’s coworker, Jodie, who was forced to drop out of high school when her dad kicked her out of the house as a pregnant teenager. Jodie doesn’t seem like a very nice person, but we soon learn that she dreams of something more for herself than her life as a single mother working at a truck stop diner. Jodie has always wanted to be a nurse, but how can she make that happen when she is barely making it on her own with her kids? When she finds out Gabby is homeschooling herself, she wants in.

Another coworker doesn’t understand what the big deal is about school. Nina thinks Gabby should just quit. Gabby already has a good job at the diner. What more could she want? Nina knows plenty of people with college degrees who still ended up waiting tables for a living anyway. Why waste time and money going to school?

A former classmate of Gabby’s did drop out of high school as soon as he turned 17. Gabby is surprised to learn that Will checks out more books at their local library than pretty much anyone else in town. How is that possible when he always seemed like such a loser? Why did he do so bad in school if he was so smart?

And we can’t forget the small-town librarian who talks Will into joining Gabby and Jodie’s study group. The group of three self-studiers soon becomes four adult do-it-yourself high schoolers, with Gabby at their helm. Lynn the librarian does everything in her power – and within her tight library budget – to make sure the students have the resources they need to succeed.

Word of the do-it-yourself high school, DIY High, spreads. Before long, Gabby feels like she’s spending more time helping everyone around her than she spends doing anything for herself. College seems farther and farther away, and this struggle is at the heart of the book’s conflict. Gabby shouldn’t have to carry the weight of everyone else’s problems, but this is the life she’s been given. This is the life of so many kids in our schools who are not the types of students that our teachers are typically trained to teach. DIY High teaches a lot of lessons, but above all, it shows that education can’t be one-sizes-fits-all. At DIY High, each student gets to tailor her education to her own needs. Even Gabby.

Get your copy of DIY High on Amazon today in print or on Kindle. DIY High is also available for you to read free on Kindle Unlimited.

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