The first time I visited a classroom—in my role as a writer—was in 1970. I had just published my first book, Things That Sometimes Happen, and I was invited to Roosevelt, New Jersey. The invitation came from my brother-in-law’s aunt. I remember it well.
This morning, via Zoom, I visited a class in Rumford, Rhode Island, via Zoom. Last class of the strangest season. I shall remember it well, too.
In other words, I’ve been visiting classrooms for fifty-one years. How many classes have I engaged with? I’m guessing a few thousand.
As I published more books there were more classroom visits. In those days they came to me through my publishers. Now they come almost exclusively via my independent publicist. In the old days I would visit as many as five classrooms a day. Once, I did, seven. Never again.
It may be hard to believe but back then these kinds of school visits were somewhat new. There was no one to tell me how to do it. In many cases, there was no one to tell schools how to organize them.
At one point I wrote an article with my dear writer friend, Betty Miles (The Trouble with Thirteen) about how—from the writer’s point of view one could do school visits. I no longer know where or when it was published.
At some point, I began to show slides of my family, my home, and most of all my writing process. Each year I would takes pictures and mount them on a carousel and hope the school had a decent projector.
Once, when visiting the prestigious school run by the National Cathedral in Washington DC, where many congressional and government children went, I was shown the elaborate resources of the school. Then, during my talk—showing slides—the projector bulb burned out. There was a mighty struggle to find a new one, and since no one knew how to replace the bulb I did so, all the while continuing with my talk.
“We would like to start off the day,” said my teacher host at a school in Oklahoma, “with you saying a few words to some students.” With that, she led me onto a stage of a gigantic auditorium. Two thousand kids were there.
Only once did I walk out of a school. It was in a wealthy suburb of Boston. The only question they would ask was “How much money did I make from . . . “ a particular book. “Ask that one more time and I’m leaving,” I said. It was asked again. I left.
I would attempt to “read,” a class mood when I walked in. I have a practiced opening when being greeted by a slouching high school class, reeking with indifference. I start by asking, “Let’s talk about why you think this is going to be boring,” and I point to the boy who is sitting there in the front row, legs extended, making a show of keeping his eyes open. “Me?” he says, startled. “Yes, you. Tell me why you think this will be stupid?” A good discussion follows about being lectured to about writing—and spelling. We move on to a good time.
In a school in eastern Colorado, a boy stood up, and said, “I hate reading. Reading is a waste of time. What you are saying is stupid.”
Among the many rewarding visits were those to classes of dyslexic and dysgraphic kids. I loved showing them my high school papers which were drenched with the red critical marks my teachers’ made. As I shared this visual background, the kids, who began class with lowered eyes, clearly awaiting another vapid pep-talk about their struggles, would slowly lift their eyes, and smile, and begin to ask questions.
Once a boy raised his hand and asked, “Were you ever divorced?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Are you still friends with your former wife?”
“Yes,” I replied again.
“I’m glad,” he said.
After the class, a teacher came up to me and apologized for the question.
“No, no. I’m glad he asked that,” I said. “I’m guessing his parents just got divorced.”
“How did you know that?” said the teacher.
And many a time, after talking to a large group, one student would linger in the room. She, or he, had not asked a question. But now, alone with me, the kid would say, “I really liked listening to you. I’m going to have to read your books. Thanks for coming.” The student walks away, and a host teacher, full of anxiety would rush up. “What did he say to you?” “Just that he liked what I said.” “Wow! That kid never says anything.”
After a two-hour drive across the planes of North Dakota, I was in a school when I asked for questions. The first question was, “Why are you here? No one ever visits our school.”
Today’s visit was conducted with Zoom. Not the best way. It is like talking to a collection of postage stamps. But it worked. We all had fun.
A couple of weeks ago I visited a classroom, a virtual visit. It was the 10th year I visited that teacher’s classroom. It will be the last. She’s retiring.
It’s hard for me to say what the kids get out of the visit. I come, I visit, I leave. Sometimes I get reports from the school. In my beginning days, I left a questionnaire with my host asking for an evaluation, and suggestions for improvement.
But what do I get out of such visits? To be sure my books are read and sold. But I have never treated these occasions as a marketing venture. I have never tried to teach. I want to share with young people my experience as a writer. To share my love of reading. Most important for me is that I get to meet my readers. I hope they become my friends. They tell me what they like and don’t like, and I have always learned a great deal from that. And maybe, because of that, now and again, as I am talking to a particular student, I realize I’m talking to the character I’m writing about.
Thanks for being there. I may never see you again, but maybe we’ll meet again in my stories.