Since it's American Education Week and at the same time my old elementary school is celebrating its 50th year in the business, I though the gratitude theme here on the blog would all fit nicely together in this piece.
Authors are frequently asked, “When did you first know you wanted to be an author?”
For me, it was in Mrs. Walker’s fourth grade language arts class at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School. Miss Rossi was my regular fourth grade teacher, but we switched classes for language arts. (Miss Rossi impressed all of her students because she lead a double life! She taught by day and worked at her family’s pizza place by night!)
Mrs. Walker let us know the two basic guidelines in her class on the first day we came in and sat down. She said, “You can write whatever you want and you can read whatever you want.”
Now, it was 1966 and all boys were spy-crazy! We loved James Bond, Our Man Flint, Man From U.N.C.L.E., and Secret Agent Man. My friend Dan Hammer (who is today a gaming software developer and artist) raised his hand and asked, “Can we write spy stories?”
Mrs. Walker replied, “Yes.”
Hammer wanted specifics. “Can they have guns in them?”
Mrs. Walker nodded. “Yes.”
Hammer kept his hand up. “Can they have electrical shock stuff?”
Mrs. Walker smiled patiently. “Yes, Danny.”
Hammer pressed on. He was looking for the loophole. “But can they have blood in them?”
I thought we were about to see blood. Hammer’s in fact. But Mrs. Walker just smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “Daniel. You can write whatever you want.”
Danny and I immediately began writing together. We wrote furiously. We filled spiral notebooks with crazy, funny, ridiculous, illustrated spy adventures, often passing the notebook back and forth as we wrote dialogue in the voices of our different spy characters.
After several spy “novels” we switched over to doing our own individual stories. I still remember writing a story about a scientist (his name was Leonard Lorris) who invented a serum that turned a rat into a human. (I was never sure why. I guess he just thought it was cool.) I wrote a civil war story with an escape from a prisoner of war camp, one about a circus, and a number of superhero tales. We did revisions along the way with Mrs. Walker, learning grammar and punctuation as we went. We read our stories aloud to the class, getting feedback from her and our classmates.
As for reading, Mrs. Walker informed us that we were part of the “Paperback Book Club.” This consisted of having several shelves of paperback books that we could pick from and read. You could read any of them. That the year I discovered Edgar Allen Poe, Toby Tyler and the Circus (first time a book made me cry), Snow Treasure, Mark Twain, and even some Alfred Hitchcock short story collections. It was somewhat more exciting than the adventures of Dick, Jane, and Puff.
At one point, Mr. Ksanznak, who I think was an assistant superintendent at the time, drove four or five of us “Paperback Book Club” kids to Atlantic City on a Saturday to talk to a classroom full of teachers about the program.
It was a loooong drive and very exciting. (He was a well-prepared guy and even had crackers in the car for the car sick among us, of which I was one. Okay! I was the only one.) It was the first time I ever spoke to a roomful of adults about anything, but Mr. K was very encouraging and supremely confident that it would be great. And it was. We handled questions from the audience and even got to go out to dinner together.
As a teacher and writer now, I think back about those experiences. Mr. K. gave a group of ten-year-olds the opportunity to travel and speak to adults about something we really understood and the audience really wanted to know about. It was as authentic and enriching as education can get. Lois Walker was using a Reading Workshop/Writing Workshop approach some thirty years before it was popularized in classrooms. In fact, the best writing class I ever took as an adult, was taught by a former children’s book editor at the New School in New York. She basically followed the same format as Lois Walker.
As an author now, a good number of the scenes in my second book for children, Love Puppies and Corner Kicks, came from my own Ben Franklin adventures. Once during recess I “accidentally” threw a snowball near our principal, Mr. Dornish. (To clarify, I threw the snowball on purpose. It was an accident that Mr. Dornish happened to walk out onto the playground right at that moment.) I was lectured about snowballs knocking people’s eyes out and so on and it definitely made an impression on me. So much so, that in Love Puppies, the main character throws a snowball that inadvertently hits her principal in the head. I just took my real-life Ben Franklin incident and exaggerated a little, as authors do.
Not only did my years at Ben Franklin give me the tools, experience, and encouragement to be a writer, but also plenty of material, which I will continue to mine in the books to come. Thanks, Ben Frankin! (The school, not the guy.)