Thursday, September 26, 2013

Writing with Mrs. Jones

My former author name which happens to be my legal name.
It began when a new teacher asked if I would come talk to her classes about "the job of a writer." My favorite part of being a children's writer is classroom visits.

This visit, however, had a unique outcome.  At the end of the day, the teacher called me aside.

"I haven't taught in fifteen years," she confided to me.  "I've never taught sixth grade, and I took this English job because it was the only one open.  Because I'm the new teacher, they gave me the most difficult students, and I don't really know how to teach them to write.  Would you be willing to help me?"  She was willing to pay me out of her own pocket, she was that desperate.  How could I say no?

So for the last three months of school I came every Friday to her three classes, each one two hours long to include grammar and composition.  The objective on the board:  "Writing with Mrs. Jones"

A new boy came to sixth period class.  "John is a troublemaker," other teachers said.  "He has serious problems."  "Don't let him get away with ANYTHING," said the principal.

Great.  Sixth period already had its share of troublemakers.

Enter John:  a tall, lanky boy, older than the other kids, nice-looking but craving attention so badly he didn't mind disrupting the entire class--even the entire school.

Friday came:  "Writing with Mrs. Jones"

"Who are you?" asked John.  "Are you like Judy Blume, or something?"

"Or something," I said with a weak smile.  "I'm a published author.  Someday I plan to be like Judy Blume, or something."

At first he resisted.  At first he was sent to the principal's office every Friday because he wouldn't cooperate and would not let the others write.

Without John we wrote first-person narrative, using all five senses.  We wrote "telegrams" to find the theme of a piece.  We cut and pasted sequences.  We cut and pasted objective/subjective terms from magazine ads.  (These tough-acting sixth graders really liked using scissors and paste.)

With John we learned how to dig for facts, write a rough draft, and then a final draft for a report about whales, with colorful illustrated covers.  We wrote poetry and made our own poetry books.  We learned how to write "an awesome essay."

Some of the students wrote well.  Even the most hardened kids showed glimpses of coherent, almost brilliant thought.

John enjoyed expressing himself in words.  "How does this sound, Mrs. Jones?" he would ask.  "Do you really like it?"  He turned out to be a promising artist, too.

I lost sleep worrying about John.  I wished I could make such a positive impact on the boy that he would turn away from the self-destructive path he was bent on pursuing.  We did become friends, at least.  He always greeted me whenever our paths crossed in our small town.

Though I did not influence John in a big way, he has kept a piece of my heart all these years.  When the press of life tries to crowd out my love of writing, I remember him, and I realize I can never quench this fountain of words.  I never know whom I may reach with a word of hope, no matter how fleeting.

Besides, I promised John that someday I would be like Judy Blume--or something.


  1. It is a blessing and a burden to love children. Those of us who loved them have positive impact and those who see it as a burden make a negative impact but, in the end, we all make an impact. We just have to decide which impact we want to leave. Indifference is negative. Smile and solider on, the Lord is taking note.

    1. Yes, Suze, may we ever have a positive impact on everyone we meet!