I’m sitting in a room with 25 fourth graders and we are all shouting, “I am an author! I have something to say!” I have goosebumps. I’m much older than 10 and have written a novel, but never in my life have I shouted those words. Call me a slow learner.
Add to that humbled volunteer.
I’m a writing coach at an Open Books literacy field trip; my group and I have just spent 2 hours learning about character and creating our own from a photo of a nondescript brunette twenty-something. The kids decide she is Anna, a fashion designer in New York City with an on-again-off-again boyfriend. She’s trying to pay off student loans and doesn’t know if she can afford to stay in the city. She likes yogurt and platform shoes. (Move over Candace Bushnell!)
Open Books is a nonprofit organization in Chicago that brings in public school kids to learn slam poetry, college essay-writing skills, how to be good readers – whatever espouses the joys of readin’ and writin.’ Just off Chicago and Franklin in downtown Chicago, Open Books is anchored by an impressive bookstore stocked entirely with donations, but the soulful shouting goes on upstairs. I originally signed on to come with my son Boone’s class, fulfilling my not-overly-involved-mother-must-chaperone-at-least-once obligation (Sorry! Bouncing along the Kennedy in a school bus makes me sick!), not knowing that one step inside the brightly colored loft space would hook me in faster than a well-crafted first sentence. It’s hard not to love a classroom painted to look like a #2 pencil, or a bathroom decorated with posters of banned books: To Kill a Mockingbird, Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby….sheesh! Who knew?! A few weeks and one orientation later and I am happily shouting myself hoarse with some of Chicago’s coolest kids.
We all have something in common. Everyone has a story to tell. That first morning with my son’s class, my story started as an adventure. I was excited to spend the morning with him and get a rare glimpse into his world. When we got on the bus, he sat alone behind me because he wanted to have his own seat and talk to his buddy across the aisle. But his buddy spent the whole trip talking to the kid behind him. I turned at one point to see Boone staring balefully out the window. Uh-oh….unexpected drama. Why wasn’t he laughing, joking, having fun? Didn’t he have any friends? What if kids didn’t like him? I started to worry, and not just about him. No, this must be all my fault. I’m too quiet. I’m too shy. I’ve cursed my kid with some gene that makes it hard for him to be one of the crowd. I’ve cursed him to be like me.
Things only got worse as the field trip progressed. Boone hung on me like damp laundry throughout the workshop, hardly participating. The fantasy I had of seeing some new side of him was quickly fading. He sat on my lap as the coaches talked about poetry and asked the kids to begin writing about an important person in their lives. I peeled him off me and was relieved when he finally began writing. I was amazed by the amount he wrote in five minutes, and stunned when he volunteered to share his poem in front of the class.
When the coach called on him to read, I heard a boy across the room say, “Ah, Boone! This will be a treat!” Those few words were, simultaneously, both the blow and balm I needed. There was in the room at least one person who knew and appreciated my son. Someone who didn’t care if he was having a “mom” day, or that he wasn’t performing like a character in a Disney show.
My son’s poem was about me and included lines like: She’s great at jokes, smart at math, and is 5 feet tall. None of that is true, but isn’t poetic license wonderful? He also wrote that I taught him to ride his bike and make scrambled eggs, that I tell him to read more books and watch less TV.
So I learned a little something about character; that it’s the details that count more than the glossy snapshot. And it doesn’t matter what the story is, as long as it’s your own. As I coach the kids at Open Books, I see more and more what it means (and takes!) to be an author. At the close of every field trip, when they’re told to shout those words, I hope what they hear, more importantly, is: Be yourself. Tell your story.
Someone, I promise, is listening.
Open Books is a nonprofit social venture that operates an extraordinary bookstore, provides community programs, and mobilizes passionate volunteers to promote literacy in Chicago and beyond.
Open Books has a mission: to enrich lives through reading, writing, and the remarkable power of used books.
For more information or to support the cause, visit: www.open-books.org