Yakima author turns teaching experiences into novels.
YAKIMA, Wash. -- While teaching in Alaska 30 years ago, T.L. "Terry" Winetsky discovered a report indicating that the amount of lead in the school's water supply was nearly three dozen times higher than the allowable level.
That was decades before the public health debacle over dangerous lead levels in the water in Flint, Mich., and not much came of his find, said Winetsky, who also served as the school's principal during his five years there.
The alarming discovery, just one incident in his 35 years of teaching in schools throughout the United States, reappears in fictional form in the Yakima resident's latest novel, "Belagana-Belazana: An Outsider's Quest In The Navajo Nation."
Winetsky will host an author meet-and-greet and sign copies of his fourth book and its predecessors, all part of his The American Teachers Series offered by Pen-L Publishing, at North Town Coffeehouse on Saturday.
"Belagana-Belazana: An Outsider's Quest In The Navajo Nation" was inspired by Winetsky's time teaching on the Navajo Reservation.
The book centers on Sean Noland, a middle-age, recently divorced English teacher who takes a job at a remote government school in the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona.
"An outsider to the Navajo people as well as his employer, Noland begins to bond with his students despite their deeply ingrained distrust of the belagana, or white man," the book summary notes. "Some bitter staff members and an oblivious bureaucracy complicate matters."
One frigid night, two boys run away from the dormitory because one fears his family's lives are being threatened by his alcoholic father, the summary says. Noland and the dormitory director embark on a manhunt to find the boys before they freeze to death.
Winetsky's years as a teacher yielded a rich vein of experiences that he has drawn upon for all of his novels. Two in particular — "Happy Ranch to Watts" and "Maria Juana's Gift" — are semi-autobiographical, with "Happy Ranch to Watts" the most so, he said.
Winetsky grew up in Los Angeles. After serving in the Peace Corps for six months, he was back in his hometown without a plan for the rest of his life. A friend asked him if teaching interested him, and in the spring of 1968, he took his first job in South Central Los Angeles, teaching seven classes of seventh-graders from low-income homes.
"I had no idea when I got into teaching," Winetsky said. "But when you see kids who are striving to try to learn something regardless of their environment, that just motivates the hell out of you."
After 1968, Winetsky returned to college for his certification, then taught English and Spanish to students of all ages in the Southwest and Northwest. A school administrator for some of those years, he retired from full-time teaching in 1998 and has been tutoring ever since.
He self-published his first book, "Grey Pine," in 2008. It's centered on the explosion of Mount St. Helens in 1980 and is his best-seller to date, having sold 3,000 copies.
"I was actually teaching in Othello when that happened," he said.
Winetsky self-published that first book, then found a publisher for his second. That arrangement didn't work out, so he found another, Pen-L Publishing, for his third and fourth books. The small publishing house based in Fayetteville, Ark., has 46 authors and 100 titles.
"I just started sending out manuscripts, and they were the first to respond," Winetsky said of Pen-L, which has republished his first two books along with his third and fourth.
"Maria Juana's Gift" is his most personal novel, Winetsky said, but all of his books are based mostly on actual events.
"I've used all the places we have taught as settings for my books," Winetsky said of he and his wife of 47 years, Kathleen. She's an early childhood special needs teacher in Union Gap. They have four children.
"My wife is such a motivating factor for me," he added. "My wife is one of the most dedicated teachers I know. My wife is an example for me."
Winetsky is passionate about supporting youth who lack access to quality education and has little patience for educators who disregard the needs of nontraditional students — or any students. And he dislikes schools mired in inflexible bureaucracy.
A summary of The American Teachers series describes it as "a line of fiction books that reveal a spectrum of intense issues that teachers face, from racism and blind bureaucracy to apathy and substance abuse."
Some teachers and administrators "just don't care," he said. But those who do make a difference.
At one point, one of Winetsky's seventh-graders was on the verge of being expelled, he said. Though most teachers wanted him kicked out of school, the principal chose instead to suspend him for two weeks.
The boy came from a big family, and nobody in his family had graduated from high school until he did, Winetsky said.
He was arrested as a young man and served time in jail, Winetsky said. But he straightened out his life, works as a bus driver and has a family of his own now, he added.
"I was so impressed with how curious he was," Winetsky said. "He's like that today, still."
Winetsky keeps in touch with him, along with a few other former students, he said.
One he's lost touch with was a young gang member who wrote poetry. One day, Winetsky was surrounded by gang members in a school bathroom. The poet called them off, declaring, "That's my teacher."
He included that incident in one of his books, describing the fictional teacher as "a middle-aged guy who relates better to kids than adults — like me," he said.
"Kids are honest and direct and interested in the world around them," Winetsky added.
There should be high expectations for teachers, and they should have high expectations for their students, he said.
"A good teacher doesn't have to be taught that," he said. "If they don't have high expectations for the kids, they don't belong in the classroom.
"If someone goes into education with high expectations for kids, it's going to be wonderful," he said.