In Angie Bennett’s gritty new book, Narcissistic Praise-Junkies, teacher Ellie Warden struggles with troubled teens, school shootings and her own complicated love life.
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As a devoted educator who leads a high school behavior-modification unit, Ellie deals with kids whose learning and behavioral problems range from obsessive-compulsive disorder to Tourette’s syndrome. Her sharp wit and caustic sense of humor allow her to cope with a stressful job and a school system that provides little support for her program. Bennett herself teaches students who have emotional and behavior problems, and, like her protagonist, she takes a tragicomic perspective on their issues and her own.
We recently spoke to Bennett about her teaching background, and how she relates to the characters and events in her novel.
This book feels like it comes from personal experience. The characters are so clearly drawn, and the humor and heartache are perfectly balanced. Can you tell me a little about your background and how it compares to your novel?
Ellie’s experiences were inspired by some of my own. Yes, I once wet myself in a Porta Potty. I’ve also taught in a behavior unit—a very different kind of place from the one that Ellie runs! And I currently teach English in a residential treatment facility for girls who are emotionally and/or behaviorally disturbed. The loss of Ellie’s child was inspired by my own infertility.
In another review, the critic panned the novel as “too funny to be tragic and too depressing to be comic,” but that’s life. Life in the behavior unit and life with a husband with a disability. Oh, yeah…and my husband has Asperger’s syndrome. When he was in school there was no name for it; he was just that weird kid. Like Peter, he’s enjoyed a lot of success in his career [he’s an engineer], but he has to have a lot of support.
Ellie is a rather unconventional teacher in many ways. She tries to maintain her distance by nicknaming her students, but she also repeatedly risks her own life and well being for them. Does Ellie truly love her job, despite all the pain and emotional exhaustion? Do you think she would choose this path again?
Yes, Ellie loves the drama. She loves it so much that when the drama with her mama gets old, she falls in love with Peter. She’s an adrenaline junkie—but not the kind that jumps out of airplanes or joins the Marines. The kids are so flawed that she can more easily see herself in them than the “regular” kids. She’s not like the cheerleaders or the brainiacs; she’s like the kids who brand pentagrams on their arms—she’s just never had the guts to do anything.
Religion, in particular Catholicism, is a theme that runs through your story. Is her Catholic faith a comfort to Ellie? Or has it held her back?
Mama’s form of Catholicism has held her back, absolutely. But Ellie’s beliefs, her brand of religious fervor, are genuine and necessary for her. Manny serves as a foil for Ellie in this regard. Does he enjoy life more? Is he happier? Ellie doesn’t think so. Not because he’s not following God or the church or Mama, but because he values nothing, until Krista—his own little salvation.
Autism features prominently into your novel, and Ellie ends up marrying a man with Asperger's syndrome. Is this an area of personal interest to you?
My husband has Asperger’s syndrome, and Ellie’s struggles are real. Living with someone who has no ability to translate emotion into words or actions—and no way to interpret my emotions—is taxing. But Matt’s struggles in the rest of the real world are far more difficult than what we deal with at home.
Recently, on a business trip, a co-worker got irritated with him and kicked him out of the car on the side of the highway, hours from the office. This prompted my consistent response: There’s no special ed. in the real world, but there should be. There are no accommodations for those with disabilities—unless it’s a disability others can see. You’re in a wheelchair? Here’s a ramp. You have Asperger’s syndrome? Stop being an ass.