The first time I visited a class—in my capacity as an author—was in 1970. Since then, I have never stopped visiting classes, in person, and these days also by Skype. I won’t even begin to guess how many classrooms I’ve entered, or how many students with whom I’ve engaged. Still, one of the questions that always remains—after every visit—what impact do I make? Do I connect with anyone?
Almost always there are the visibly engaged kids, hands constantly popping up who have endless questions, or who come forward after to ask (or tell) me something that they feel is important. These enthusiastic young people are always fun and engaging, but one senses (in a good way) that they are enthusiastic about many things, are not shy, and are free to come forward.
The other day I was speaking at a small teacher’s conference when one of the teachers (in her forties?) approached and said, “When I was in sixth grade you came to my class. I never forgot it.” By way of proof she showed me a battered paper-back copy of Captain Grey, which I had signed for her.
In truth, broken-backed, dog-eared books, long held, much read, are sometimes presented to me as proof of a long connection to my work. Folks are often embarrassed about showing them to me, but I love to see them. They are like buried treasure.
But what about the silent kids? The shy ones? The ones who seem to just sit there with what appears to be a passive look?
Recently, someone sent me an article from the NY University’s Center for Publishing. It was a blog post published April 23. 2018. Written by Gretchen Lida (someone I have never met). It was titled “Avi’s Army of Dyslexic Writers.”
Ms. Lida described her early struggles as someone with dyslexia. Then she wrote:
“The first time I knew I could be a writer was when I saw the children’s book author Avi give a presentation in an elementary school gym. There, among the smell of old sweat, gym shoes, and whatever cologne custodians use to make a place smell like a public school, Avi presented slides of his school papers. They bled with notes about sloppiness, laziness, messiness. They had bad grade after bad grade.
“’If he could be a writer,’ I thought, ‘so could I.’
“Like me, Avi has symptoms of dyslexia; his parents hid it so his teachers wouldn’t treat him like he was stupid. I am from a different generation than Avi, and while the stigma I experienced was far less than Avi’s, it was the pain that we shared that stitched the memory of that screen onto my brain. Our shared dyslexia was as vivid as climbing the rat-lines on the ship in The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, and as snarky as the porcupine in his novel, Poppy.”
Needless to say, I found Gretchen’s Lida’s words touching. But it was also a reminder what I—and the legion of my writer colleagues—can do when we talk to kids. The silent kids.
There is one other way—when I visit schools—that I can tell if I have made an impression. It happened the other day when I was in a school. After I made a presentation (to about 500 kids) I was wandering the halls. A couple of girls walked by. As they passed me they called, “Hi, Avi.”
New friends. Connected.