Beloved local teacher will have second novel published

Editor’s note: Lauren Means has been a feature writer at the Mosquito while home from college for the summer.  She was a student in Mrs. Pixley’s eighth grade class, and her personal tribute is appended to the end of this article.

Marcella Pixley looks forward to the school year. (Photo by Lauren Means)

Although Marcella Pixley, known as Mrs. Pixley to her students at Carlisle schools, is getting ready for the new school year, lesson plans aren’t the only thing on her mind.

Pixley’s new book, Without Tess, comes out on October 11. It follows the path of Lizzie, a teenage girl, from childhood to adulthood as she recalls how her life was changed when she lost her sister, Tess.

When the sisters were younger, Tess and Lizzie both believed whole-heartedly in magic. When Lizzie decided it was time to grow up, Tess refused to let go of her games, to the point of obsession. Years later, Lizzie finds Tess’s old diary and begins a journey to try to understand her sister a little better.

Without Tess has many differences from Pixley’s first book, Freak. The protagonist in Freak faced bullying at school, which led to a culmination of hurt at the hands of society. Without Tess focuses on a young woman’s self-exploration as she struggles to remember the magic that had so filled her childhood.

“When Freak came out,” said Pixley, “my seventh grade teacher came to one of the readings.” When Pixley had been a student in his class, she had written nothing but fantasy.

“He asked me, ‘What happened to make that fantasy and magic you used to always write about go away?’ He was surprised when Freak came out because it was so real.”

Sparked by her teacher’s question, Pixley explored what had made her turn away from the magic games of her childhood.

Pixley revealed that she had a close cousin she used to play make-believe games with as a child, much as Tess does in the book. Like Tess, Pixley’s cousin passed away at a young age. Pixley focused on the feeling of losing someone and of being left behind to fuel her heroine’s actions.

“I asked myself, ‘How could I write about loss?’” That feeling of loss, Pixley said, is very different from what the protagonist in Freak felt.

Pixley wrote Freak in college. “I think of Freak as much younger writing and with more lyric style, but Without Tess is more refined – it has a style more formative for me.”

Pixley firmly believes that every writer should give himself or herself a chance to branch out from their own style and explore “the lyric forms of words, the way words make music.”

Pixley also believes that even the most mundane things can inspire a full-fledged story. Her book is proof of this claim.

Without Tess began as a horse puppet in one of my workshop classes… We were using objects as focal point. Everybody sits down and writes. I looked at the horse puppet and I started to remember how my cousin and I would pretend that inanimate things were real and alive.”

The book blossomed from there. Pixley read segments to her students as she wrote them, tweaking here and there as needed. It evolved from a single idea about her past into a complex story of love, loss and the exploration of self. “I think about what questions I have about my past [that] I want to explore,” she explained. Pixley doesn’t reach for memoir material, but instead draws personal questions out of her experiences. In this case, she followed her teacher’s question: what had made Pixley stop writing about magic? Would Lizzie be affected in the same way?

In this exercise, Pixley finds the students invaluable. “I need the classroom,” she said. “Writing and teaching come together for me. What I’m teaching comes from what I get from the students. I’m not so different from the kids in that we’re all trying to express ourselves. I know the struggle very intimately. If I weren’t a writer my teaching would be very different.”

In September Pixley will start her seventh year at Carlisle. “I love it here,” she said. “It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had.” Past jobs include teaching positions at Shady Hill in Cambridge and three years of private schools in Connecticut.

“Students are motivated [at Carlisle]. Parents are invested, which is a good situation for students.”

Pixley appreciates the room she is given to create her own curriculum to suit her students’ needs.

Pixley teaches her students three basic units of literature: poetry, fiction, and memoirs.

Pixley still teaches the same core books she did when she first arrived at Carlisle. The Giver introduces the students to the utopia genre. The House on Mango Street, one of Pixley’s admitted favorites, gives students a peek at the lyrical writing Pixley favors. Studies of John Locke and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream follow, as do lessons on the Holocaust and a unit on bullying.

“The object of the lessons is to reach out to students,” said Pixley. “There are always a few who step up,” she added with pride. Many of Pixley’s lessons concentrate on the morality of reaching out to help someone else. Pixley remembers the feeling of being on the other side of that situation; the one who was reached out to. Those instances have stuck with her for life.

“A few teachers of mine did that for me. I am in touch with a number of them now. When I’m in the classroom I’m remembering them all the time.”

Mrs. Markin was a high school English teacher of Pixley’s. “I was on fire in her classroom. And my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Diamond. She said, ‘Marcie, I love the way you think.’ What a wonderful feeling.”

Pixley enjoys encouraging young members of the Carlisle community. “I think we’ll do well here.” she said. “We’re like back door members of the Carlisle community.” Pixley’s son will be transferring to Carlisle schools in the fall, where he will start third grade.

Just as Freak received four-star reviews, Without Tess is already gaining critical acclaim. The Junior Library Guild, an organization which supplies schools with books and is known for having a keen eye for bestsellers, has chosen Without Tess to back.

Pixley is already working on her third book. “It’s nowhere near finished,” she laughed. Undoubtedly the writing will be sped up by Pixley’s interactions with her students this year, as she prepares to launch into another year of teaching.

When I was getting ready to leave Carlisle School, Mrs. Pixley was just arriving. Her first year of teaching was my last year at Carlisle, but her lessons have stayed with me ever since. Mrs. Pixley encouraged me not only to write, but she also taught me how to be a moral human being. Her unit in bullying has shaped my growth through high school and now in college. Her obvious love of literature opened my eyes to the ways writing could reach different people. Most importantly, I constantly remember that for every person in need of a helping hand, there can be another person ready with a hand outstretched. Now, as I earn a B.A. in Book Publishing at Hofstra University, I carry the lessons she taught me and try to pass them on to others.

–  Lauren Means      ∆