This week I had the privilege of interviewing Wayne Street, a teacher at Petaluma High School who has written a book about his 15-year struggle with two potentially deadly diseases. For the first time in my life, I literally could not put down the book once I began reading it.
Game, Set, Life: My Match with Crohn’s and Cancer (Mustang, OK: Tate Publishing, 2009) is inspiring, compelling and surprisingly funny. By allowing us to share in the most difficult period in his life, Wayne passes along some of his immense determination and hope. The book is a gift of life.
After interviewing Wayne, I walked away feeling like I had just met Jimmy Stewart from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” He would probably be uncomfortable hearing anyone talk about him in this way; but Wayne is a genuine hero. He has overcome great adversity to become a loving husband and father, a dedicated teacher and a talented writer.
You can meet Wayne, and get a signed copy of his book, on Saturday, March 6th from 2:00-4:00pm at Borders in Santa Rosa or on Saturday, April 17th from 1:30-3:30pm at Copperfield’s Books in Petaluma.
Why did you write this book?
My first goal was to write a book and become a published author. I tried short stories and fiction, but I kept coming back to this story – my story. After six or seven months, I had more or less a beginning, middle and an end.
What was it like writing about your experience with your illnesses?
It wasn’t too difficult. I still feel like I was right there in the doctor’s office or on the tennis court or in the classroom. Like it happened yesterday. It’s hard to believe that it has taken place over a fifteen year period of time. Now that I look back I realize how much more therapeutic it was going through the process. But I didn’t set out to do it that way.
In what way was it therapeutic?
This is stuff I hadn’t talked about before. Not even to my parents and my wife and my closest friends. Even for my closest friends there were lots of surprises in there. What I said and what I thought. But it was just time to let go of that stuff so I could move on.
How did they respond?
Everybody was very moved by the book. My wife was relieved that I expressed some of that. She can see a change in my demeanor. I think she knew all the stuff that was going on, But I had never opened up or spoke about it. I held it in.
Was that your way to cope with it?
I think so. It’s my business, my burden. Not something that other folks need to be worried about or burdened with. That’s the way I dealt with it. This is my struggle and we all have our struggles. And I don’t want to worry you with mine when you’ve got your own issues and your own problems.
Did you reach a point in your writing when you got concerned about opening up and talking about it?
Yeah. When I hit that point – I shared a couple things early on with a writing group and they responded very positively to what I was writing about. So I continued to go more and more deeper with it. I felt comfortable sharing it. A little bit of that wall let loose. So I said, “Okay, it’s all right sharing this. It’s all right to talk about this.”
What is your writing group?
It was put together by Marlene Cullen who does a writer’s workshop here in town. Her youngest son is a former student of mine at Petaluma High School where I teach. I read an article about her in the newspaper. I had heard about these groups. She reached out to me and invited me to a group. It’s been over a year and a half that I’ve been going to it. We meet twice a month. There are four to five of us. We share a piece of writing each time. Everybody gives their comments, their reactions or questions.
Was the writing group helpful for your book?
It kept me accountable to continue working on it. So I never put it away. They gave me some things to think about that I hadn’t seen. And they helped me develop the story with some of their questions and comments. One person wanted to know more about my mother. She was there but I gave her a cursory role in the beginning. So I developed her character into the strong person that she is. Another person focused on the consistency of the book. The group was vital. I’d probably still be in the middle of writing it if it wasn’t for the group.
What was it like to share something so personal with others?
One of the lessons that I’ve learned as a teacher, and from talking with other teachers, is to develop the ability to listen. And not interject. I understood the writing group pretty well. It’s their comments. Take them or leave them. I wanted to say a few things as they made their comments. But I kept quiet and listened because that was the whole point of the group.
Was there a point in the writing group when things clicked?
Yeah. It was during the third chapter. One of the ladies said, “You need to finish this.” This was a person that I didn’t know very well, and she was telling me that this needs to be done. It was a signal to me that maybe there was something to this. That really kept me moving along.
What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
The hardest part was writing about myself because I don’t feel totally comfortable talking about myself. My wife calls me junior a lot. And my mom and dad have called me junior over the years. That’s why I stuck with “Junior” [as the narrator] because I thought I could detach myself a little bit when I was doing the writing.
What kept you going during your struggle against the illnesses?
To be honest with you, I never really thought of myself as being that sick. I always felt that I was going to get better. When I was diagnosed with cancer I was feeling very fit and very strong. The doctor said, “No, this is serious. This could be terminal.” Then the enormity of it dawned on me. I wondered how I could be that sick and feel this good or this strong. To put it in perspective, maybe it was because I was single and didn’t have children. But now that I’m married and have a baby it’s a totally different perspective. The last couple of times I had some bouts with Crohn’s I felt very concerned. What if I don’t make it? Now that I have more responsibilities I feel more of the enormity and the seriousness of it than I did when I was younger.
What was your relationship like with the doctors and nurses?
They were the professionals. But as much as I trusted them I did a lot of research. And I made sure I questioned them. One of the first things I found out when I was sick – I read an article somewhere – was to learn about the illness and be informed about it. That allowed me to trust the doctors and nurses. I never doubted that I was in good hands all the time.
What was the most difficult time with them?
One time in the ER [emergency room] or the ICU [intensive care unit], for the ninth, tenth or eleventh time, the nurse tried to stick me with an IV and couldn’t find a vein. I think that was the only time that I really boiled over. I remember shouting at the nurse to leave me alone. That was the only time I’d done that. You’re at wits end. The pain was through the roof. Your arms are bruised all over the place from the needles. I remember that because my wife and one of my brothers were there at the time, and they remarked how out of character it was for me. I snapped.
What do you teach at Petaluma High School?
I teach 12th grade economics. I got into economics because I replaced somebody who passed away. Talk about irony. When I got hired I was in the middle of doing the chemotherapy. I was bald in the interview. I love it. I love the seniors.
Do your students know about your book?
Yes. A few of them have read it. One girl wrote me a page and a half letter. She talked about her impressions and how she was very moved by it. Another kid who read it is going through Crohn’s disease himself. He’s the first person I met in the fourteen years I’ve had this illness who has it. Now I realize how sick I was looking at him and seeing how much he is struggling. We chat a bunch. He’s not in my class, but he comes by once every other week and we visit. It’s good for him to be able to talk to somebody who knows why he has to stop what’s doing and run to the bathroom or why he’s not living the life he should be living right now.
Are most of the students aware of your story?
I think they’re becoming more aware of it. A lot of these kids didn’t know I had cancer. Very few teachers at school knew I had Crohn’s disease until this year. Maybe about four or five of them. It’s how I go about my business. The closest ones in my department know if I’m not there what’s going on – that I had a flare-up or an attack.
What lessons have you gained from your struggle?
In terms of health, I think it’s really important to listen to your body. What it’s saying. I think that’s why I was able to act on the cancer early on. Many people may say this hurts and sluff it off. You can detect it earlier. And it’s all right to share and let people know some of the things that are going on. My family is there to support me and I don’t need to be that fiercely independent as I like to be. That’s what they do for me and that’s what I do for them. We’re all in this together.