Out in Public

I spent the day at an elementary school reading two of my books to groups of children:

One of the groups was arranging itself on the carpet in the library and a second grader looked up at me and said, “I Googled you.”  I must admit I was taken aback, and all I could manage was, “Oh, really?” Not exactly a snappy comeback.

I didn’t know that my voice would last; altogether there were 13 groups of children, and I read “The Box of Toys,” “Father and Sister Radish and the Rose-Colored Glasses,” or both, to each of them.

One little girl was wearing a tee shirt with a saying on the front I thought was amusing. When she looked my way I pointed at her and said, “Nice shirt.” She didn’t smile, just stared at me for a second and then dropped her eyes, and had such a look of sadness and resignation on her face that I thought, oh, boy, I know that look. I’ve seen it a thousand times in my career. What really struck me today was that during my professional life most of the young people I worked with had that look as a normal feature, and here, in this place, it stood out as unusual. I can’t help but wonder if I did the young people under my care a disservice by seeing that look as normal. Not that I could have fixed anything; I am under few delusions about how much power and influence I had. The fact that my view of normal life had ended up mirroring theirs is the real point here.

One of the teachers had her class write next chapters to “The Box of Toys” after they went back to their classroom to make space for the next group. I was given their efforts by the end of the day and spent a delightful hour or so going over them. They ranged from extensions of the central message of the book, that of generosity, to one student who took the idea to NASA and extended the notion to outer space, one who uncovered a scam on the part of one of the recipients, one who was clearly taken with the word “very,” one who got a real loaves and fishes thing going, and several other variations on their starting point, which was the ending of my story. It was a pleasure to read them.

The staff and administration of the school did a great job moving the children in and out of the library, maintaining order during the readings, and generally making me feel welcome. My thanks to them.

And to my friend Doug, who helped me with my presentations for the entire day and was great with the kids and as an active co-presenter, impressive considering we had not planned anything out in advance.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

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