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Woog's World / He teaches literature -- and creates it, too

Published 5:34 am, Sunday, February 10, 2013
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If you believe there's truth in the old adage "Those who can, do; those who can't, teach," then you haven't met Paul Ferrante.

The Coleytown Middle School language arts teacher does far more than teach literature. He writes it, too.

He's contributed over 100 features to Sports Collector's Digest. He's written a baseball novel. And in April his young adult novel, "Last Ghost at Gettysburg," is set for publication.

It's hard to imagine a Coleytown student Ferrante hasn't shared an interest with. A writer himself since his school days -- he "tried to write" his first novel as a teenager -- he also spent 15 years as a football coach, first at Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, then Iona Prep and Mount Vernon High.

Twelve years ago he was hired by Westport. By then he'd retired from coaching -- "football was 24/7, I had a young daughter, and I wanted to do autumn-y stuff during autumn," he says -- and returned to his first love: baseball.

Ferrante calls his first memory of the sport "the classic first scene, with the dad and his son walking out of the tunnel." So it was natural that his first stories for Sports Collector's Digest were ballpark histories.

Then came spring training reports, and interviews with the greats: Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and more. He also guest-hosted "Inside Yankee Baseball," on Bridgeport radio station WICC.

Ferrante met and grew friendly with Robert Creamer, the Sports Illustrated senior editor who wrote the definitive biography of Babe Ruth. After Ferrante wrote a novel centered around the 1927 baseball season, he showed it to Creamer. Encouraged by his mentor, Ferrante shopped it around. But no one bought it.

Finally, an agent said, "Baseball is okay. But do you have anything else?"

Ferrante did. For years, he'd been thinking about a Civil War-related young adult novel. History was another passion, dating back to childhood trips to famous sites. Two decades ago, Ken Burns' brilliant PBS documentary riveted Ferrante. He took his wife and daughter on visits to legendary battlefields. They learned about the ghostly, paranormal effect Gettysburg has on many people. "Last Ghost at Gettysburg" was a natural next step.

When he finished his final draft, he picked young-adult agents from the Literary MarketPlace and sent it out. All of them sent it back.

After a year of rejections, he was ready to throw in the towel. But before doing so he went online, and did the very thing writers are not supposed to do. He sent his novel directly to publishing houses.

Fire and Ice -- a young adult publisher -- bought it.

"Not all of Gettysburg's dead are at rest," the publicity materials say. Three teenagers find the Civil War town is a lot less boring than they expected. They attempt to solve a murder mystery that has local police, park rangers and paranormal investigators in a panic. "How do you stop an undead killer from 1863 from wreaking havoc in the 21st century?" the press kit asks.

The three main characters -- one a good-looking boy who would like to be popular but does not know how; his friend, a nerdy outsider looking in, and a self-confident, strong girl who runs cross country -- are "an amalgamation of many kids I've taught," Ferrante says. Every day at Coleytown, he notes, "teachers see kids at their highest and lowest. We watch them react to each other."

Because he likes his students so much, Ferrante's main characters are "very likable." He hopes they will remind young readers of themselves, or other teenagers they know. After all, he notes, "when kids read novels, we always want them to make connections. I think with this book, they can do that."

At the end, the first boy finds his confidence. His nerdy buddy ends up a hero in his own right. And the already-strong girl continues to inspire.

As Ferrante developed his characters, he grew to appreciate them very much. "They're good people with good hearts," he says.

Last year, he gave his seventh-grade students an assignment that included excerpts from his book. When said they liked it, he revealed the author's name: His own.

This year, he waited until last month -- after the cover was finalized -- to tell his class about his soon-to-be-published novel. They were very excited. Soon, he went on Coleytown's morning television show to tell the entire school. This being the 21st century -- not 1863 -- he also showed a YouTube trailer his daughter created to publicize the book.

So will Ferrante end up teaching "Last Ghost at Gettysburg" to his own students?

"I'm not sure about that," he laughs. "But maybe I can get it in the rotation for summer reading."

Dan Woog is a Westport writer, and his "Woog's World" appears each Friday. He can be reached at dwoog@optonline.net. His personal blog is www.danwoog06880.