ASHLAND CITY, Tenn. (WTVF) — A custodian at East Cheatham Elementary School in Ashland City completed his childhood dream and published a book in fall 2021 with a fellow teacher who encouraged him to write after years of giving up.
"I met Ms. Deona, who is the co-writer on the book. And somehow, we just we just clicked. She's my best friend here. You know, I don't, I don't know what I'd be without her," said East Cheatham Elementary School Custodian and Author Paul Lewis Jr.
When Lewis started at the school in 2018, he said he was in a "dark place."
"My father passed away in 16, and I took it harder than I thought I would," said Lewis, "I was homebound... it really saved my life to be here."
Pre-K Teacher Deona Ray said she saw him in the cafeteria, "He would be mopping, and he would just start telling me stories, I'm like, ‘I'm bored so talk to me. A story about what?’ And then he would just start telling me the stories."
Those short stories turned into sharing his own story with Ray forming a life-changing friendship.
Lewis said he started writing when he was 11 years old and wrote parts of novels throughout his life.
"I'd lose interest, I get writer's block, and it lasts for years. Until I got here," he explained. "I actually tried to get published with five different publishers and five agents and I got turned down all five."
He said for years the defeat was crushing, "You forget how to be a child, you forget. You lose your imagination sometimes. This place [East Cheatham Elementary] actually did the reverse for me. It gave my imagination back to me."
Through the storytelling in the cafeteria, Ray said like her students, she gave Lewis a nudge, "They need someone to believe in them and someone to inspire them... They just need that little [nudge], to do it. And that's what Mr. Paul needed [to] do it."
"I pulled it out and Ms. Deona said, ‘You're going to put something in is fun this time?’ I’m like, ‘No, I'm going to go to original idea.’ She goes, ‘Put a dragon in it.’"
Their in-passing conversations quickly turned into a whole book.
"We actually work out the dialogue together and during the times that she comes in and and works on the ice cream. I'll say okay, ‘here's the scene I want to do. We need to do dialogue.’ And we'll do dialogue and I'll talk like on Richter she'll talk like she's the dragon. And when I when we're done, I go home and I work on it."
"Everything that I do in the book, she [Ray] goes through with a fine tooth comb and looks at all the dialogue between all the characters and make sure the characters behave the way that I've written them; make sure they don't go off track," explained Lewis. "She also made sure that the dragon is as polite as she can be. And while at the same time still maintaining her sassiness that dragon is her. Okay without her that dragon doesn't exist. She gives she gives that dragon the personality, the sass, the jokes, the humor, it's all there."
Ray is not the only staff member in the book.
"The cafeteria women there they are in the book. They are actually the Sisters of Destiny," said Lewis who explained the school nurse and several teachers also have parts in the book which is now in the school library for students to check out.
"The children couldn't be couldn't be more enthused," said Lewis. "All the time it's, ‘Mr. Paul, your book’s not in the library. Can we can we get some more? Can we get some more?'"
East Cheatham Elementary School Principal Paul Boles said he sees the impact Lewis has on the kids saying he and Ray "embody the spirit of what Cheatham Elementary is all about."
"The fact that you have someone or have people that feel strongly enough about our school, that they're willing to write a book about it and that it means that much, not just to these individuals, but I think for everyone, that's a pretty special place," said Boles. "I think our mascot being a dragon, and you know there's a lot of magic involved here. And I really think East Cheatham Elementary like the cool thing about is this is truly a magical place."
"We want people, kids that read this to become better people," explained Lewis, "We're putting lessons in there. We're hoping that they see these lessons about treating people. The same no matter what their skin color, showing mercy, how to work together and cooperate, putting aside your differences to accomplish something."
Ray agrees, "It only takes a second of your day to say, ‘Hey, how are you today?’ And when they tell you how they are, listen, listen how they're doing and you know see how you could help them."