When I do school visits, the students treat me like a superhero. The time with them is exhilarating, and it would take a much more hardened heart than mine to resist the curiosity and imagination these young people exhibit. But my classroom days also leave me bone-deep exhausted. One afternoon, midway through a weeklong residency, I lay down in my front yard when I arrived back home, too tired to tackle the Mount Everest that had replaced my front steps.
That’s one of the reasons I stand in awe of classroom teachers. The degree of patience and endurance that they require to show up day after day for an entire school year astounds me. I also have a secret theory that education majors are trained in super-human bladder control. For my part, I need to stay fully hydrated to survive school visit days — which means I develop an early awareness of the restroom layout for any school I visit. That’s how I got to be particularly friendly with one young writer who I’ll call Jake. In his particular school, there was a handy faculty restroom just off of the nurse’s office. Between classes I’d duck in, and more often than not find Jake sitting on the nurse’s bed.
“Hey, Mrs. Writer Lady,” he’d invariably greet me, and we’d exchange pleasantries and chat about the activities I had planned for his classroom that day.
After several more restroom visits, I became worried about Jake. The little guy seemed to spend a good part of his school day in the nurse’s office, and I imagined an array of chronic diseases that might be the culprit. I finally caught a rare moment where the nurse was present but Jake was not, and understanding that she couldn’t reveal confidential medical information, I told her of my concern for Jake’s health. She laughed, waving a hand.
“Jake’s not sick,” she said. “They just stash the sent-to-the-principal students in here when the principal is away.” In other words, Jake was That Kid: the one who spends a good part of his educational experience getting into trouble, disrupting other students, and being sent to the principal’s office. Yet this side of his nature was completely foreign to me — when I worked with his class, he was enthusiastic and engaged, cheerfully creating a highly imaginative piece about a polar bear who McGuyver-ed bubblegum to solve his story’s conflict.
Jake was my first hands-on evidence of something I’ve observed time and again during my classroom visits: stories can have the power to reach That Kid in a way that few other things can. I’ve now had many teachers seek me out after class to tell me about That Kid in their classroom: how, to the teacher’s great surprise, That Kid was able to focus, to behave, to show enthusiasm, for my story-writing activity in a way That Kid seldom can for other classroom activities. Stories certainly aren’t the magic fix for every struggling kid, but I now believe strongly that they can sometimes work wonders for That Kid.
Most superheroes need a superpower: mine is stories. I work really hard to make my school visits fun (hence the need for all that hydration!). But the truth is, I’m not an entertainer by nature — I’m a writer who spends most of my work days alone with imaginary characters and a cat. So the credit for the ability to reach some of those hardest-to-reach kids should rightfully go to the power of story rather than to me. That means that any classroom that allows time for pleasure reading and creative writing can tap into that power, too.
You just need to stock up on good books, sharp pencils, and not-empty-for-long notebooks, and Kapow! Zap! Boom! It will be superhero time in your classroom (or living room) before you know it.