An Extraordinary Ordinary Life

Welcome to my Second Acts Series!

Today, we have author Susan Van Kirk sharing her rich and varied life experiences and introducing her debut novel, Three May Keep a Secret.

Here’s Susan!

susanvankirkI have lived an extraordinary, ordinary life. It has been ordinary in the sense that I grew up and never permanently moved more than twenty miles from my home town. I married, divorced, and raised three children; I taught 4,000 high school and college students over forty-four years; and now I am starting a Second Act as a writer. That would be the ordinary part. Extraordinary applies when I look back and see the blessings and people who have come into my life and made it richer in so many ways.

But it took more than one turn in the road to reach my Second Act.

Born right after World War II, I grew up in a world where women had few choices, and to marry was a lofty life goal. I mention this because today that stifling world seems so far away, but my generation and my thoughts were certainly shaped by that culture. I chose to be a teacher—a mundane choice given the times—but, in actuality, to be a teacher was all I ever wanted to do.

People would say I have had an ordinary life teaching school in a small town in west central Illinois. I married right out of college, and five years later I began having children. But when that marriage fell apart, I was thrown into a turbulent time of raising children myself, working full time on a small salary, and struggling with bills. Teaching high school students and helping them with their own struggles restored me. It gave my life meaning and put it back in balance. Eventually, I got on my feet financially, often working summer jobs to make ends meet, and my children went off to college.

After the last child left for college, I went to graduate school for an advanced degree. It was a scary proposition, living on my own in a university town and knowing no one. After all, I had left my parent’s house to reside in my husband’s house, and then I had stayed there raising children. But I discovered I loved my new-found freedom, and I finished in three summers. This degree enabled me to teach on the college level, and I left a high school job I’d loved and taught college students who wondered if they might want to be teachers. I enjoyed helping future teachers see a profession that might give meaning to their lives as it had mine. Eventually, it was time to retire, so in 2011, I left teaching.

Then, what to do? Because of my age I have spoken to people who decide—gnashing their teeth—that it’s time to retire, but they aren’t sure what to do with that time. I was never one of those people.


Act II began, but it had its roots in Act I.

Back in 2006, I told a story in my education class, an inspirational story about how a college friend of mine who had died in Viet Nam had literally reached through my life and helped a student of mine find direction in his own life. I did, and still do, believe that teaching puts a person in a situation where she can influence lives forever in a positive way. One of my college students said I should put that story in writing, so I did, and Teacher Magazine published it. I had a good time writing “War and Remembrance,” and the magazine also put an audio file of my voice reading my story on their website.

And then the extraordinary happened. From all parts of the country and even abroad, I heard from former students I hadn’t seen in years. After all, now we had the internet. One of them wrote, “I heard your voice and it was just like coming home.” They touched my heart again. Encouraging me to put more stories in writing, they reminded me of conversations we’d had, and moments when our lives had intersected in extraordinary ways.

And so I wrote a memoir, in 2010, called The Education of a Teacher (Including Dirty Books and Pointed Looks), a book about the realities of classroom teaching. I used fifteen stories from those years, some of them stranger than fiction, some of them sad, and some of them funny. While I was writing, I contacted former students who helped with the details and convinced me I was remembering correctly. And each exchange was a gift. As I look back on those stories now, they document an extraordinary life, a life that did—in a humble way—have an influence on the lives of others. That book led to Act II.

A month ago in December, 2014, Five Star Publishing produced my first cozy mystery, Three May Keep a Secret. Not surprisingly, it is the story of a high school English teacher, Grace Kimball, who lives in a small town called Endurance. She often sees her former students, and the reader laughs at what she remembers about their crazy antics in high school. But it is, after all, a murder mystery, and I have had to research and interview police chiefs, coroners, detectives, fire chiefs, and doctors. I’ve learned a whole new vocabulary of death in my new act. My main character, Grace Kimball, is a warm, interesting person, but she finds herself in the middle of a scary, dark place when the murderer sets his/her sights on Grace. She is also haunted by a past event, and her memory of this will not let her go. Five Star has now picked up my second mystery in the Endurance series, Marry in Haste, for 2016, and I am currently starting the third.

Act II is funny and fulfilling. I love talking to audiences, giving out surprise door prizes, and listening to the many people who come to book signings. I also feel happiest when I’m neck deep in research and trying to figure out how to solve a plot problem. Now, instead of teaching people, I’m entertaining them. But I’m still remaining true to what I did for forty-four years: I’m getting people to read. Between Pinterest, Facebook, GoodReads, and my website, I hear from many of those people whose lives mingled with mine, and I am gratified to think that I have led an ordinary life, but in many ways it has been blessed with extraordinary riches.

And, I’m laughing my way through Act II.

ThreeMayKeepASecretFront (2)


Grace Kimball, recently retired teacher in the small town of Endurance, Illinois, is haunted by a dark, past event, an experience so terrifying she has never been able to put it behind her.

When shoddy journalist, Brenda Norris, is murdered in a suspicious fire, Grace is hired by the newspaper editor, Jeff Maitlin, to fill in for Brenda, researching the town’s history. Unfortunately, that past hides dark secrets. When yet a second murder occurs, Grace’s friend, T.J. Sweeney, a homicide detective, races against time to find a killer. Even Grace’s life will be threatened by her worst nightmare.

Against a backdrop of the town’s 175th founder’s celebration, Grace and Jeff find an undeniable attraction for each other. But can she trust this mystery man with no past?


Where to find Susan…

Website/Blog | Facebook | Pinterest | Goodreads

Joanne here!

Susan, thank you for sharing your inspiring and motivating experiences. The storyline for Three May Keep a Secret sounds delicious. I’m putting it on my TBR list.


14 responses to “An Extraordinary Ordinary Life

  1. Pingback: Second Act Wisdom – Part V |

  2. Susan I enjoyed your life story, it gives me hope with my writing to keep at it and learn all I can. Thank you and good luck with everything you write. I also loved the fact your students found you again and encouraged you. What you put into life comes around again.

    • Thank you, Debra. I always found a sense of community in the teaching profession, and a smiliar intention to help each other exists among the authors I’ve contacted. I may be calling on your for advice next! Susan

  3. Thank you, Joanne, for allowing me to visit you at Second Acts. Writing this piece helped me put a lot of things into perspective.

  4. Thank you, Saskia, for your kind comments. i’m glad to hear you are teaching and receiving those wonderful blessings from that job. You undoubtedly have that “teacher” look and those teacher words.

  5. Hi Susan, what a lovely touching story. 3 years ago someone assumed I must have been a teacher for most of my life. No I was not a formal teacher, and yes I have come to love to teach women. As you say “teaching puts a person in a situation where she can influence lives forever in a positive way”. I now believe that is true for me.
    Thank you for my wonderful early morning read and keep writing your extraordinary stories! Hugs, Saskia

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