Without prejudice for race, religion or gender, one of the toughest things to deal with in life is death. As a former worker at a funeral home, Sheri Booker developed a unique understanding of how people deal with losing a loved one.
In her memoir, Nine Years Under: Coming of Age in an Inner City Funeral Home, the former school teacher chronicled her experiences and interactions from her time at the funeral home in hopes of giving readers a different outlook on coping with death and appreciating a life well lived. The book, which was released in February 2014, won an NAACP Image Award in the category of outstanding literary work from a debut author.
In an exclusive conversation with BET.com, Sheri talks about her upcoming projects, the lessons she learned from her time as a teacher and how the loss of her mother made her reevaluate some of her own lessons from Nine Years Under.
BET: Now that you’ve gone from an aspiring author to an inspiring author who are some of the authors that have inspired you?
Sheri Booker: I love, may she rest in peace, Maya Angelou. Also there’s this one book I read called Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood and she’s one of my favorite writers and definitely Touré. He has a show on MSNBC now, but I love his writing. He has a book out, a collection of essays called Never Drank the Kool-Aid. I just love his style of writing.
BET: Following up Nine Years Under can't be easy. What are you working on next?
Sheri: Right now I have two books I’m working on, one fiction and the other non-fiction. Hopefully in the next year or two they will be on shelves. The non-fiction book is another memoir about my experience when I left the funeral business [and] I went to South Africa for a year and I lived in South Africa. Think Eat Pray Love, the Black version in South Africa with a young girl. And the fiction book is loosely based on an experience of girls in an all-girls charter school in Baltimore. It’s my art imitating my life or life imitating my art, however you want to say it.
BET: Is it difficult to go back and forth between writing the two at the same time?
Sheri: It feels different because the South Africa book, the memoir, feels more like I’m just writing a journal entry because I’m just writing about my life and it’s mostly recalling. The other book, I have to be in a different place because I’m writing about different characters so I really have to prepare myself to get into the mind of those characters. It’s really a challenge for me and I’m enjoying that process, the freedom, being able to create characters on a page. With the memoir, I already know how the story ends and with the fiction one, I’m totally creating it myself. So I love everything about it.
BET: You recently suffered a loss of your own when your mother passed away. Did you follow your own advice from your years at Wylie Funeral Home or did it cause you to rethink your outlook on dealing with death?
Sheri: Absolutely. I’ll tell you that when I wrote Nine Years Under, I thought that I knew everything about death because I worked in that business. And then, in January, my mother passed away and none of it made sense to me anymore because I was on the other side. When you become an outsider again, it’s such a different position to be in. When I worked in the business, I could always see the good of it. I could always console someone and I could just see through my vision, like, this had to happen to bring the family together or there was some kind of lesson in there and this person lived a great life, so it’s okay that they passed away and you’ll be okay. But then, when you’re on the other side and it’s your mom, it’s like, “No, it’s not okay.” That was hard for me. Especially cause I thought I had mastered death and at the end of the day I hadn’t just yet.
BET: You used to be a teacher and you currently run the "Mind, Body and Soul" program at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women. Is teaching something you want to keep doing as you continue to write?
Sheri: I’m not in the classroom anymore but I started my own business. Basically I write programming for schools and I’ve taken my "Mind, Body and Soul" program and gotten into some other schools. So I definitely wanna stay connected to education. I’m also thinking about television as well. I have a few ideas for TV and I can't say too much right now, but I’m kind of excited about them. So that’s the direction I see myself going in.
BET: And what is your advice for teachers that are just starting out?
Sheri: What I’ve learned as an educator is for this generation it’s all about connecting with your students, and I think a lot of teachers miss that opportunity to connect. It’s about building relationships and building trust so they can learn from you and just understanding who they are and acknowledging them. I know teachers think we’re just supposed to teach, but no, you have to connect with your students. I think that’s one of the things that I think. And one of the things I teach my students, on the other hand, is just that. I try to teach them the opposite, that it’s not about who you love as your teacher, it’s about who you learn from. And that’s the main thing I try to drill into them, 'cause students will find a reason not to love their teacher but they still have to be able to learn from them. So it’s all about the connection and the relationship that’s built between the teacher and the student
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(Photo: David Livingston/Getty Images)