Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Small Claims Court Revisited

I’m going to eat some words here. In a blog titled “It’s not fair!” I said: Do not — I repeat — do not ever try to sue a client in small claims court. In my experience, it cannot be done. I have tried three times, and, as I sit here popping Excedrin, I am about to give up.

I’ll admit I was pretty frustrated when I wrote that. I had already filed the same claim twice; plunked down my money twice to have to sheriff track down my elusive client; and gone to court to explain why I hadn’t prosecuted the defendant, who had never been served because he couldn’t be found. The sheriff’s office was getting used to my visits and phone calls, to the point that they actually called me to find out what the problem was (that’s a first, I’m told), and then went out to track him down.

The third time’s a charm, they say. They are right. I filed suit again, paid the sheriff again, and got on the docket again. Then, wonder of wonders, I began receiving e-mails from my missing client suggesting a settlement of 25 percent of what he owed me. Of course, he didn't actually have that amount of money, but he would borrow it. Yeah, right. I suspected that this time the sheriff had actually served the subpoena.

I went to court today, but my client did not. The courtroom was packed; and, if I had stayed around a bit longer, I could have written a book instead of a blog post. The judge was a comedian who should have his own TV show. He spent 45 minutes trying to keep a straight face hearing a case having to do with cement, planter boxes, and a dissatisfied customer who waited 13 months to complain about the contractor. Then, he devoted five minutes to cracking jokes with me before he awarded me the full amount possible in small claims court.

“That’s great,” I said. “Now what do I do?”

“Well, that’s the problem,” he replied. “We’re not allowed to tell you that.” The assembled crowd cracked up. I collected my evidence and went to report to the ladies at the filing window that I had won my case by default. I guess very few people ever tell them how it all turned out. They were delighted and, apparently, not at all restricted from telling me what to do next and how to do it.

So, off I went, armed with new forms to fill out and renewed determination to tackle the next step of our insane legal process. Updates to come.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Another Class; Another Magic Moment

I’ve been teaching a class in how to write, publish and promote your nonfiction book for several years. I have taught it to individuals and groups, for the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the Lindbergh School District’s Adult Education Program, and the St. Louis Community College. Every class is unique, of course. The students are adults of all ages and backgrounds. They have lived lives before they walked into what could be “just another noncredit course.” It might be fun, or it might be a complete waste of time. They don’t know, but I think I do. By the end of the first two hours, I hope I have convinced them that this is going to be a different kind of class, not what they expected, and perhaps even a life-changing event.

I hope that doesn’t sounds arrogant. I say it because I have experienced the incredible dynamics and personal transformations that take place in these classes, year after year. It is difficult to describe the synergy that occurs within a group of strangers who mesh in some inexplicable way. Someone has a question; two people offer answers. One person is stumped on which direction to take; another responds with compassion and insight. And I stand at the front of this high school classroom, transfixed, yet again.

My new class met last night — the class I had wondered whether to teach at all because of the low enrollment. Ultimately, I decided to “trust the process” (see sweatshirt on my last blog) and am so grateful for that decision. The process worked (it always does). Somehow, we ended up with 10 amazing people. I do not use the word “amazing” lightly. It is a wonderful group of individuals who are writing about subjects as diverse and substantive as I could ever hope for.

Some had their sentences nailed: “My book is about _________________.” Others were not so sure, torn between two good ideas and trying to get in touch with their real passion for one of them. This is the exciting part — when everyone is turned on by the possibilities. It is my job to keep them turned on and moving forward toward their completed books. I have no illusions that anyone will write a book in six weeks, unless he or she works on it every waking hour, but I do know they can learn what it takes and get a good start on actually doing it.

I emerge from each of these classes greatly enriched by the people I’ve met and the things I've learned from them. This semester promises to be one of the best ever!

Friday, February 6, 2009

To Teach or Not To Teach

My class at the community college used to be filled to overflowing. The maximum was 15 students, and there was usually a waiting list. The Economy (with a capital E) has changed all that. Belt tightening is no longer just a good idea; it’s a reality. Enrollment is down on all three campuses, but whether to teach or not to teach is completely up to me. Last semester, I decided not to.

Even though we had enough students for the college to break even financially, I reasoned that if anyone dropped out, and people always do, the group would be too small to be effective. The result was that I missed teaching, and the students I never met missed out on what could have been a great experience. This semester, the same choice has presented itself: teach or cancel the class.

This time, I am going to teach.

What is the worst thing that could happen? Well, the class could turn into the world’s smallest writing group. Actually, it couldn’t be any smaller than the time we started with six people, instantly dropped to four, and ended up with two. Those two showed up every week of a frigid winter semester, and one of them turned out to be a close friend.

It could be group made up of introverts in which no one talks. Of course, in all my years of teaching, that has never happened. While it’s true that more than one true introvert in a tiny group can put a lot of pressure on the others to carry the ball, how likely is a room full of people who don’t participate? Not very.

I guess I could go on with all the “worst things,” but that seems a pointless exercise. A better approach would be to wear my favorite sweatshirt on the first night of class and let the Fates take care of the rest.