When he was in the third grade, Jimmy Teigen, CAC’s 6th grade writing and Bible teacher, knew he was going to write a book. Decades later, with creative writing classes, an English degree, ministerial and teaching experience under his belt, his confidence became reality. In July 2020, Teigen self-published his first story — a “middle school book to help young teens deal with difficult times” titled Unlocking Happiness: Cole’s Journey.
The story follows two timelines — that of George and Hog as they board a ship in the winter of 1944 and that of Cole and Abby as they learn about friendship, loss and empathy in 2021. Over the course of 33 chapters, the characters are interwoven on a journey that spans hundreds of miles and multiple lifetimes, and it ultimately leads them on an incredible scavenger hunt.
While the desire to publish a book was present from a young age, the story didn’t begin to form in Teigen’s mind until 2000 while at a celebration of his grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary.
“My grandpa told us a story of this ship that he was supposed to be on, but wasn’t,” Teigen said. “He was part of the 66th Infantry Division in WWII, and right before they shipped out, two guys were chosen to stay and attend officer training. He just happened to be one of the two guys. That boat — the one he was supposed to be on — got hit by a torpedo, and hundreds of men died. He said that for 50 years he had wondered why he didn’t die, and I could tell it had been his life struggle. This story is part of our family. I knew I had to write about it.”
In 2018, Teigen turned 40 years old. Inspired by a friend who pledged to do 70 new things the year after his 70th birthday, he made a list of 40 new things he wanted to try. According to Teigen, completing a manuscript was an obvious choice for the list. After the 2018-19 school year ended, he looked at the upcoming summer with great anticipation and vowed to have written 50,000 words by January 2020.
“I started off staring at a blank screen,” Teigen said. “I decided to just start writing … that lasted about three or four days before I got stuck. I knew it wasn’t my personality and that I needed to find my writing process. I’m lucky, because as a member of the English department I get to meet all of the authors who come to visit our school. You can ask any of the other teachers … any time an author came, I would ask them to explain their process in detail. It was Roland Smith’s that made the most sense. He has a bulletin board with 3×5 cards where he maps the whole thing out chapter by chapter. As soon as I heard it, I knew. That’s my process. That’s what I need.”
Teigen opted for a digital version of the bulletin board and created an Excel document to keep everything in order. He separated the chapters, wrote down the characters and developed the plot line. Using a nonlinear approach, he would open the document and choose a chapter to focus on. Usually, the sections of the story he was most excited to work on jumped out and came easily. According to Teigen, the knowledge that he didn’t need to write a whole book, just one chapter, gave him the freedom to tackle the project bit by bit.
Since one side of the story is based on a historic event, he was able to spend a significant amount of time researching the details online and in person. During a family vacation, the Teigens visited the Leopold memorial to read all the names of the men who died on the Leopoldville at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia. When it came time to write dialogue between middle schoolers, Mr. Tiegen didn’t need to do much research.
“I interact with middle school kids every day,” Teigen said. “As I was writing Cole and Abby’s friendship, I was able to visualize how a certain kid would react or what another kid would say in a specific situation. It was fun to go through the process of putting those pieces together to create characters.”
During each class period Mr. Teigen shares with his 6th grade students the importance of the written word, the need for empathy, and the power storytelling has to shape our world. At the beginning of every year he reminds them that “…we have great things in our mind. We think cool thoughts, and through writing we try to communicate them clearly.”
Combining his Bible lessons with his English syllabus, Mr. Teigen speaks passionately about the need for pieces of empathy that can be found through reading. He felt it was important to write a story where the characters were given multiple opportunities to show and experience empathy.
“You read a story that makes you cry, and you realize that you’re just reading letters on a page that have somehow gotten in your heart,” Teigen said. “How does that happen? Why do we cry over books? That’s the power of words. They can connect us. I really feel that empathy is the missing link. It shapes who we are; it shapes how we view the world; it shapes how we think and how we act and how we live. We need stories where empathy is shown. The whole time we’re seeing characters show empathy, we are doing that ourselves as the readers.”
After attending an author seminar, Teigen decided to self-publish his story and use the resources around him to make it even better. Both CAC English teacher Ian Thomas and a librarian friend of Teigen’s from St. Louis edited the manuscript, while Teigen’s uncle-in-law created the design for the cover image. He released the final version on Amazon in July of 2020.