Every day, one in four students is bullied. According to an American Justice Department survey, 160,000 students miss school each day out of fear of being bullied, and one in ten teens drop out of school completely due to repeated bullying. Against the backdrop of this increasingly-important issue, author Thomas Russell’s Finding Your True North: A Bullied Teen’s Journey of Hope depicts the life of an oppressed teen who learns life-changing, soul-searching lessons from the residents of an unfamilar town.
Formerly a freelance writer and the editor of RV Trade Digest, Russell is now a mentor for Five Star Life, an organization that teaches values to middle school children. Inspired by the issues these children were encountering on a daily basis and seeking to make a difference in the lives of bullied children around the world, Russell wrote his book over the course of four months and had it published in August of 2014.
To learn more about Russell and his work, follow him on Twitter.
What was your upbringing like, and how did it shape who you are today?
I’m the youngest of five boys. My father and mother were divorced when I was five, so I didn’t have a nuclear family that help mold me. I’m okay with that, because my mother gave me more love and support than any child could ever have. She encouraged me to write from a very early age. The look on her face whenever I brought home something I wrote was priceless. She guided me by her unyielding compassion for other people. To this day, I model my behavior and compassion for other people because of how she was.
Who are you biggest creative influences?
Stephen King because of his honesty. Andy Andrews (The Traveler’s Gift) because of his unique inspirational messages. He draws you in to the point you never want to get out. But I would have to say my biggest influence was my fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Evans. She looked me in the eye and told me that I was going to be a world famous author some day. I’m not world famous yet, Mrs. Evans, but I’m working on it.
How did you initially get involved with Five Star Life?
I was a manager of a convenience store company that owned several stores, and we were prompted to help with fundraising for Five Star Life. I took it upon myself, even with me being the lowest volume store, to be the biggest fundraiser; that’s the competitor in me. After I collected the most money, I decided to look into what Five Star Life was all about eight years ago, and I was hooked.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your work with Five Star Life?
It’s when you look into the eyes of a student and tell him that he matters, that he can be a champion of his own destiny, but only if he puts forth the effort. Then when you actually see him put his best foot forward, both scholastically and emotionally, it’s impossible not to smile with pride for him. We teach these students these five core values, sacrifice, integrity, responsibility, respect and courage, because we know that they have what it takes to succeed in life. Our goal is in teaching them that they can change their lives by changing the way they think.
What inspired you to write Finding Your True North?
I wanted to incorporate those five core values in a book, but I needed to find a way to expose Charlie, the 14-year-old bullied teen, to real life issues, like bullying, an alcoholic father, suicide, drinking for the first time and shoplifting. That may sound bleak, but kids these days see these issues thrust on them daily. Having said that, my goal in developing Charlie’s self-esteem was allowing him to make some mistakes in his life, but also allowing him to learn the five core values in the process from the people he meets in the town he runs away to.
I have to be honest, I found myself crying sometimes when I wrote some passages in the book, because I wanted to create an impactful and inspirational message to the people who would end up reading it. I know, I’m a sap.
Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Yes, of course. What writer doesn’t experience that from time to time? How I battled it was remembering why I was writing it. I set a personal goal of finishing the book by the end of April last year. That would have never happened, given the fact I had two jobs, if I didn’t believe I could do it. It was never drudgery to write. And if I ever felt a creative pause in direction, I simply prayed to God to give me the words. And let me tell you, after I did that, my fingers were a blur of creativity and passion. I will never take full credit for writing this book. I give all the glory to God and his infinite power. Ok, I’m crying again. The sap meter just exploded.
As a self-published author, what strategies have you utilized for marketing your book?
I never intended my book to sit on the shelf and collect dust. Since I am so competitive and driven, I spend every day thinking of different ways to get my book out to people. I’ve been interviewed by a local TV celebrity, had articles published in two local newspapers, had two interviews on web radio that was broadcast around the world and have done book signings. All of this would have never happened if I didn’t open my mouth and ask. What’s the worst that is going to happen? They will say no. So what? Writers experience rejection all the time. All a “no” means is I can cross that person off my list and ask someone else. Eventually, I will hear a “yes.” And I’ve heard plenty. All a “no” means is I’m moving forward, not backwards. The biggest thing and the most dangerous thing is to revel in any of my successes of today. My focus is always, “What’s next?”
Is bullying more prevalent amongst children these days than it was years past, or have we merely become more aware of it?
I was bullied 50 years ago. Let’s face it, bullying will never go away. With the internet and social media splashing images of people being bullied all the time, it’s natural for everyone to feel like it’s a huge issue. And it is. But let’s take the focus off the bully and onto the victim. One of the biggest reasons bullies prey on people is they feed on weakness. The reason for the book was to show Charlie that despite all the bad things that were happening to him, he had a choice of changing his life by changing they way he thought about his life. He found out that if he didn’t like the way he looked in the mirror, he had to get a better mirror.
How much is the character of Charlie based on your life and your experiences?
I was blessed with a larger than normal nose. I’ve heard it all. “You give Pinnochio competition.” “When is the swelling going down?” “Your nose is so big, it needs its own zip code.” And the coup de grace, “with a nose like yours, the gravitational force is ripping the the earth from its axis.” Those are hurtful words. But to be honest, I long ago came to the conclusion that I would not let others tear me down. Instead, I chose to model my mother’s gift of compassion and uplifted other people with kind words. Eventually, the comments faded away. I love my nose now. It’s a great conversation piece.
If you could travel back in time to relive your middle school years, would you do anything differently? If so, what?
I would have pursued a career in baseball instead of track and cross country. I was a much better baseball player than a runner. As far as internally, I would have fostered a unrelenting passion to succeed. I was fearful of success, so I performed to a certain point, only to pull back because I didn’t think I was worthy enough of success. I just didn’t know I had it within me.
What professional baseball players have you most enjoyed watching over the course of your life?
I grew up loving baseball. I played 28 years in organized ball. In fact I tried out for the Cincinnati Reds when I was 19. I am not ashamed to say I modeled my playing after Pete Rose. I admired his inimitable determination and passion for the game, even though he sullied the game by gambling. Later on in life, I grew to love watching Ryne Sandberg play, because he managed to perform with a subtle intensity and grace on and off the field.
What advice would you offer to others who are interested in writing a book?
First of all, you have to strike these two sentences from your vocabulary: “I can’t do it!” and “It’s not possible.” You need to replace it with “I WILL do it,” and “It is possible.” What I learned about myself is that self-confidence in yourself breeds success. If you want to write a book, write it. Don’t worry whether it will be published or not. Write it because you have an unbelievable passion for what you are writing about. Write for you and nobody else. Second of all, you have to realize once you make the decision that obstacles will come your way to distract you. If your dream is that powerful, I’m telling you, there’s nothing that can stop you. If you have 15 minutes to write, just do it. And never stop.
What are you working on next?
I’ve been pursuing speaking engagements to talk about the bullying issue. For booking information, please contact me at [email protected]
Otherwise, I started working on a book about the homeless community, but I have to do more research and soul searching as far as the direction is concerned. But, I have been seriously been considering writing a screenplay about the book. It’s a daunting project, that’s for sure, because I have never written a screenplay. Plus, I know how hard it is to get screenplays accepted. But if there’s anything valuable I’ve learned about myself since I wrote this book, it’s that the only limitations I have are the ones I put on myself. Those are fading away quickly.