Day Pass from the Gulag

Every so often, I’m granted a day pass from the Gulag.  It’s a day to act like a normal person — shower, put on nice clothes and shoes, eat Fruit Loops for breakfast, and drive to a school.

It’s an exhausting day of usually four, one-hour presentations, and admittedly, I sometimes feel like I’m repeating myself.  Did I just say that exact same thing two minutes ago?  Or was that with another group?

Audiences are polite.  They don’t snicker or point if, indeed, I did repeat myself, so I’m always left wondering.  And really?  Are they paying such close attention that they would notice?

I gaze at the rapt, upturned faces.  I’m in the midst of reading from my forthcoming “based on a true story” novel.  They might be fidgety for the first minute or so, but when that first bomb goes off, the squirmy ones, the reluctant readers, and the attention-deficit kids are glued like mice in a sticky trap.

The room is a silent sepulchre.  The only sound, my voice.  They are with me, all of us transported to a different time and place where, even, the cadence of my voice changes.

I read for seven minutes, then stop mid-chapter, just as the brothers discover their house is surrounded by machine gun wielding soldiers.

The students’ attention is all mine.

Before I started reading, I gave them pointers on how to improve their writing.  I ask if I’ve done what I instructed them to do.

There are usually comments, the kind of positive reinforcement a writer normally gets only from her mother.

“Thank you.  But what’s wrong with it?  What did I miss?”  My questions are genuine.  These kids are the target audience for this book-in-progress.  How can I make it better?

The suggestions don’t normally come until the end of the session, as if we’ve had to build up something to make them feel safe enough to be honest.  “I don’t think you know the smell of gunpowder,” says a Grade 5 student, and he’s right, I don’t.

“Can you tell me?”  It turns out he lives near a gun range; his dad takes him there.  He’s a total expert.  I take notes.

Another hand shoots up.  “And diesel motors.  From the tanks.”

“Yes!” I say.  “I didn’t include that.”  After class, I dash an email to a friend who spent years in the military, asking about the dust and the grease and the oil of a tank moving through a dusty city.

My pronunciation is off on the capital of Ethiopia.  I learn this from two Ethiopian students who glance at me and giggle as politely as they can behind their hands.  I practice aloud and the class practices with me.

“Should I read a little more?”  There is no question.  Kids — even the much-maligned junior high kids — love to be read to.  Why don’t we make a practice of reading to older kids?   Why not let them be transported by their imaginations?

I finish the chapter before the bell rings, and they clearly want more.  They plead to know what happens next.  They receive my wickedist grin.

“You’re not going to tell us.  Are you?”  The grin broadens.  Really, what can me more fun than tanatalizing children with a story?

During my week on the road as part of the Cenovus Wordpower tour, and later as the prize in the YABS Martyn Godfrey Young Writers Award, I learn that the first chapter is working.  It’s my job to make sure the second chapter works just as well, and the third, and the one after that, and after that because, after the hook, I want them to keep reading, all the way to the end.

At another school, a hand flies up. “Why do you always leave us with a cliff hanger?”

He gets my biggest smile, then answers his own question,  “Oh, I get it.  You want us to buy the book.”

School visits are about inspiring kids to read and write and create by letting them meet a “real live” author (as opposed to a not-quite-dead one) and ask questions, and to be introduced to new kinds of books.  But for the authors who do them, they are something more.  They’re a type of professional development where we meet our audience, find out what interests them, and tap into their expertise.

The kids are the experts.  I’m just someone pretending to be a kid.  Sure, I was kid once, but my experience is from the last century.  The best I can do is try to remember how it felt to live as a child.

And school visits sometimes come with perks:  Truly, there is no better way to end the day, than with this question from a student.  “Can you please come back next year and talk to the Grade 7’s because I want to know what happens next.”

Or the news from an eavesdropping teacher who overheard one of her reluctant readers tell his mother, “That book comes out when I start Grade 5.  We’re buying that book!”

And the boy I met in the hallway during recess break who said, “That story you read us?  It was actually good.”

“Actually?  It was ‘actually’ good?”

“Yes!  Actually, it was.”

Humbled.  Again.

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