I guess I always knew I was going to be a teacher, but I had no idea that I'd become a writer as well. Sometimes you choose your path; sometimes the path is chosen for you. Of course I couldn't know any of that when I was an infant, but the paths were being drawn for me even before I was born.
After eating a ham and egg sandwich on the way to the hospital, and for some reason that's my favorite kind of sandwich still, my mother gave birth to me on a hot sunny day in August. My father's birthday was the twelfth of August, and I was supposed to be born on his birthday, but I waited almost two weeks until the twenty-first to make my arrival into the world.
Children born in August are supposedly sunny and cheerful, and I certainly filled that bill. I loved the warmth of the sunshine on me--it made me feel warm and loved. Which I was. Fiercely. Since I was the first born child, my mother treated me like a princess. She sang to me constantly--my earliest memories are filled with song. She had a beautiful, operatic voice--she sang first soprano and should have been a star with the Metropolitan opera, but she gave up any chances for a career in singing because she fell in love with my dad, got married, and had me.
I remember her voice as she hung up clothes outside to dry, as she fixed dinner, as she worked in the huge flower garden she grew in the front of our house. She filled our house with laughter, music, and song. And books. Lots of books.
My mother read to me even before I could walk or talk. One of my earliest memories is the sound of my mother's voice, reading to me. Her voice, melodic and beautiful, drew images for me in my mind as she read of cats and queens and pretty maids all in a row. I remember the "lullaby lady from hush-a-bye street" who lulled me to slumber at the end of the day. Somehow that lady from the poem and my mother became intertwined in my mind as I began to carve memories from dreams.
She'd hold me tight and tell me stories. She'd read bright, colorful picture books to me, and even though I didn't know what those squiggles on the page were, I knew the pictures were glorious, and the sound of my mother's voice made the stories magic. She read tall tales and fables and wonderful stories. She read nursery rhymes and poetry.
The early rhythms of those rhymes became the background for words I wouldn't write for many years to come. The itsy, bitsy spider climbed into my mind and memory. The p ower of "Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" thrummed in my head, even though I was unaware that I loved the power and repetition in those words. It was the cadence of my mother's voice and the rhythm of the repetitions that first fostered my love of books and the magic of words.
By the time I was three, I knew hundreds of poems and stories and nursery rhymes, never quite sure where the reality ended and the magic began. My early years were filled with impossible notions that made sense only in the mind of a child. Of course a mouse could run up a clock and a cow could jump over a moon. I'd never had porridge, and still have never tasted any, but that never stopped me from loving the rhythms of "pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold."
One of the earliest poems I remember begins with "I think that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree." It talks of leafy arms and golden boughs. A word picture formed in my head, and even now, when I look at the glory and majesty of a full grown tree silhouetted against the sky, I am awed.
By the time I could walk, my mother introduced me to the library. She and I would walk to our neighborhood library once a week, where the chairs were just the right size, and the books were placed low to the floor, just at the right level for little people like me. Library visits were are a special trip-it was hard to sleep the night before. I reveled in the magnificent array of books from which I could choose, especially brand new books, still crisp and unsoiled by little hands. The pages, stiff like brand new soldiers, turned slowly, almost squeaking on the binding as they opened to page after page of unimagined pleasures. I loved the crackle of the plastic coverings, the smell of the ink on the page, the feel of the thick, golden pages on my fingers, the bold words that cavorted on the pages, making nonsense, much sense, and magic. I loved Dr. Seuss and how he played with words and characters. Gentle Horton, who heard a Who, and hatched an egg. Bartholomew and his five hundred hats. Thidwick, the big-hearted Moose. The magic of McElligot's Pool.
I remember the ducks crossing a busy street in Make Way for Ducklings. I'd never been to Boston, and for that matter, had never seen a real duck, but that didn't make the story any less compelling. I remember the kindly face of the policeman who helped the ducks cross the street and the triumphant face of Mrs. Duck as she herded her family where it needed to go. That book led me to McCloskey's Blueberries for Sal. I'd certainly never encountered a bear, and I know I'd never picked blueberries, but the books became my passageway into a world so much larger and more exciting than the small house we lived in.
I delighted in the antics of Tigger and Winnie the Pooh, not the animated, television version that children now associate with those characters, but the words and pictures which came alive as I read the books. I knew I'd recognize the Hundred Acre Woods should I ever pass by, and Christopher Robin would be a delightful playmate, I was sure, even if he did wear those short pants all the time. I remember thinking that Christopher Robin's mother had very little fashion sense!
I marched in a line with Madeline, but I wondered about the whereabouts of the mothers of all those little girls, and enjoyed the adventures of Curious George, and was lulled to sleep by the soothing words of Goodnight, Moon.
By the time I started school, I was a fluent reader. I don't remember ever learning to read--it just happened gradually as I progressed from listening to the stories my mother read, to reading them with her, to finally reading them by myself. I breezed through kindergarten, even though the teacher frowned on children being "too advanced" and knowing "too much" before getting to her classroom. She felt that parents just didn't have the knowledge to teach a child to read, and surely I had learned something incorrectly. But since she had her hands full teaching the rest of the class how to read the "right" way, I had plenty of time to look at books and read on my own.
By first and second grade, we were deeply immersed in the "Dick and Jane" boo ks. These were the required readers that our school, and most schools in the country, used at this time. The stories surrounded a white, upper-class family that consisted of Mom, Dad, Dick, Jane, Baby Sally, and Jip the dog. The lived in a lovely house, drove a nice blue car, and nothing bad ever happened to them. "See Jane run. Run, run, Jane. Jane can hop." These were the kind of sentences found in the early books. It never occurred to me that this family did not represent my own, or those of most of the children in my class. I thrilled in their adventures, and each year, the text would become more difficult, and the adventures of Dick and Jane would get more complicated, but still, nothing worse than a rain storm ever happened. I read them, absorbed them, and even identified with the characters and adventures presented to me. It was all I had.
I continued my weekly trips to the library, always excited about the possibilities that awaited me. I loved big books, books with chapters and plot twists, and learned to appreciate books without pictures. As I got older, and was able to go to the library by myself, I discovered Beverly Cleary. Beezus and Ramona, Henry Huggins and Ribsy--all characters I could accept, laugh with, and understand. Even though their world was still very uniracial, everything wasn't perfect in their world. They didn't have much money, and they had real, albeit humorous, difficulties. I'll never forget Henry Huggins trying to get that dog home in a box on the city bus!
Every summer our library sponsored a summer reading book club. The names of children who read books each week of summer vacation were put on a chart, and a small sticker was placed next to each name as a book was read. Most children read one book a week, some read two. I, however, considered this a challenge and read as many books as I could. Ten books was a slow week for me. They ran out of room for stickers next to my name and had to put stickers all on the margin and the edges of the poster board the librarians used to make the summer display. I think the highest number of books I read in a summer was 175. The next year they left extra space next to my name. I filled it up.
I discovered horses around the fourth grade after reading Black Beauty, and went on to devour every book Marguerite Henry ever wrote. My dream was to get to Chincoteague Island and buy my own pony. It never happened, of course.
I read all of the "Little House" books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, and then all of the books by Louisa May Alcott. Spiced up with fanciful tales of Danny Dunn and his homework machine, a brilliant invention as far as I was concerned, I proceeded to steal from the rich and feed the poor with Robin Hood, run away from home and get lost with Pinocchio and Tom Sawyer, and long for home with Heidi. I read all of Kipling, all the Baum stories about the Wizard of Oz, and delighted in Peter Pan's Neverland, where children were rulers and could fly!
I love the smell of a library, and whenever I enter I breathe deeply of that almost intoxicating library odor. It's sort of like dust and ink and magic all mixed together. The library of my childhood had wooden floors, which gleamed first thing in the morning with fresh wax, and creaked when you tiptoed across it to find a book on the shelf. The shelves, also made of wood, held row upon row of possibilities, all brightly jacketed and waiting to be opened and discovered.
The smell of a good book, when it is opened, is powerful. The plastic jacket creaks a little, bending to accommodate the opening of the treasure it holds. The pages are slightly yellowed, sometimes a little thick, but that makes them easy to turn. Each page I turn is like a gulp--rich and delicious. The print, clear and bright, calls out to me to read.
By the time I got to the sixth grade, I had read most of the books in our small school library and most of those on the children's side of the public library. The librarians knew me by name and often let me take home ten or twelve books at a time. I read them all voraciously and took them back to be exchanged for more. One librarian in particular, Mrs. Pratt, a bespeckled woman of great girth, guided my reading, encouraged me to read wider and deeper, and even offered me new books to take home to review for the rest of the children who visited the library.
I was frustrated, however, because I had nowhere to grow. One had to be fourteen to get an adult card and I was only eleven and a half. Mrs. Pratt recognized my dilemma, and one day I walked in and she announced with great anticipation in her voice, "I have a surprise for you!"
"A new book has come in?" I asked.
"Better than that!"
"The sequel to Caddie Woodlawn?"
"No." She grinned like a schoolgirl, then handed me a green library card.
Now, library cards for children were yellow. Adult cards were white. I had never seen a green one. I looked at her quizzically. "What's this?" I asked.
"It's a special-permission card," she told me. "With this card, you may check out books from the adult side of the library. The green card means someone will check to make sure you don't check out books that are too grown-up for you, but as of today, the rest of the library belongs to you!" I think I saw tears in her eyes. I jumped with excitement, gave her a hug, and ran with joyful anticipation to the great adventure of reading the rest of the books in the library. I am still there.
I was more a reader than a writer for most of my life. In third grade, I wrote a poem called "Clouds." I think some of the lines were, "the clouds can sometimes be so funny/sometimes they look just like a bunny." It really wasn't a very good poem, but my teacher loved it, and it was placed in the front hall, on display for the whole school to see. I remember not being proud of it, but being a little ashamed because it was not my best work. I've always been very critical of things I write, and always wanting it to be better. Even now, when people tell me how good they think something is that I have written, I secretly wish I had changed a couple of things, improved a couple of things, and made it better.
In junior high I kept a journal of really horrible writing. It was all about teen problems and the fear of the unknown. I wrote to express some of the normal teenaged confusion I felt. It was full of passion, but not much power.
High School and College
High school and college went by in a blur. I know when you are in school, the days seem endless, and freshmen look bleakly to their senior year, because it seems as if it will never arrive. But it does, and all too quickly. I had happy, pleasant high school years. I was in the top classes, I made good grades, and I had friends. I was not the most popular girl in the school, but I had a circle of friends that I could talk to and trust. My high school was made up of an interesting mixture of races and ethnicities. African American families were just moving into the white neighborhoods, but the high school kids, regardless of their race, seemed to get along pretty well. In addition, our school had a large population of students from Slovakian heritage. Many of them had last names that were difficult for us to pronounce. Many of their parents did not speak English, being first generation immigrants, but the kids learned the language and the culture quickly, and melted into our school society with the rest of us.
As I look back at my high school yearbook, we look old, even then. Perhaps it was the hairstyles; perhaps we just wanted to look old and serious for those yearbook photos. But we looked a lot older than we felt. We had the same insecurities and fears that teenagers face today. What will happen after graduation? Will we go to college? Will we get married? What about the military? At that time, the draft was in force, and all young men who did not go to college were immediately drafted into the armed forces. Many of them were sent to Vietnam, and many of them died there. When I visit the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C., I can trace the names of boys who sat next to me in French or Biology--boys who went to war and never came home.
I was sixth in a graduating class of 602. I missed being valedictorian of the class because I've never been very good in gym, and my gym grades kept my academic average down. Most years I got straight A's and a C in gym. It bothered me, but there was nothing I could do about it. I don't remember why the valedictorian did not give the graduation speech, and why I was asked to do it instead, but that was my first major public presentation. The topic was "A Time for Us." I took the title from a song from West Side Story, my favorite movie at the time. I talked about how our generation would change the world. I think all graduation speeches are basically the same, but I really meant what I said.
I had the choice of lots of colleges--I was a National Merit Scholar, and I probably could have gone to any school I wanted to. But I chose Pepperdine College, a small, Christian college in Los Angeles, California. I picked it because it was associated with my church, and because far away from home. I loved my parents, and my brother and sister, but I wanted to test my independence, and try to make it on my own. I also wanted to test my relationship with my boyfriend, who I had dated through most of high school. Actually, I'd known him all my life--there was never time when he wasn't a part of what I did. It was time to see if this was the real thing, or just a pleasant habit.
I remember the day I left for college. It was to be my first plane ride, and I'd be going alone. Now, it seems, young people have their parents pack up a U-Haul to take the microwave, the TV, furniture--plus all their clothes and earthly belongings, to their first adventure in college. I had a small trunk, a couple of suitcases, and high hopes. That's it. I remember that after the plane took off, I cried.
A family friend met me at the airport, and took me to the campus, where I was delighted to find palm trees lining the walkways, and a small, cozy campus. I encountered my first real example of racism on that first day. I found my room, chose which bed I wanted, started to unpack, and waited eagerly for my roommate to appear. She did. Tall, blond, and very surprised to see me, she wondered if perhaps I had the wrong room. I told her no, and continued to unpack. She and her parents huddled and whispered together, gesturing and pointing at me, not sure what to do.
She finally said to me, "Perhaps you'll be happier with another roommate."
"No," I told her, pretending I didn't know what she meant, "I'm sure you and I will get along just fine."
Her mother joined in the conversation. "We think you'd be happier in another room, dear."
Now, I've been taught to respect my elders, but I knew where this lady was coming from. So I took a deep breath and told her, "But I was here first. If she wants to move, that's fine with me."
They seemed to think I should be the one to leave, but I had already plotted out the corner bed next to the window, and I had no intention of leaving. "It will be better all around if you just pack up and move out now, dear," her mother insisted.
I wanted to cry. My breathing felt tight and my insides felt like they were burning. But I sat on the bed, which I had made up with my pretty orange bedspread, and refused to budge. They hurried out of the room to find an administrator to make me leave the room to which I had been assigned.
They returned with an administrator of dorms, who, instead of doing what was clearly the right thing, took me aside and suggested I give in just this once, and she'd find me a real nice room with other "colored" students, where I'd be much happier. I did cry then. But I refused to budge. I insisted that if she was unhappy with me, she should find another room. The dorm lady whispered to the parents, promised the girl a nicer room than freshmen were supposed to have, and left me alone in my little victory. Two days later, I got two roommates--one was white and one was black, and the three of us still remain close friends today.
I like the fact that I went to a small college. I gradually met most of the students on campus, and I felt like I was in a small family. I knew the teachers, and where they lived--I'd even been to their homes occasionally. They knew me, my strengths, and abilities. It felt good to be accepted. An although racism did show its ugly head occasionally, basically, I breezed through college with success and a smile.
One teacher from college I remember particularly was my freshman English teacher. He was from Tennessee, and talked with such a strong southern twang I could hardly understand him. I just knew he had to be the least intelligent man I'd ever met. How could he ever teach me, the English scholar, anything at all about literature? But I was quickly humbled by his quick wit, his discerning analysis of my writing, and his ability to spot "bull" when I shoved it out in a paper.
One day he gave us a pop quiz on several poems he had assigned us to read the night before. For some reason, I had not read them at all, none of them. He asked us some general questions about the poetry, and then to analyze the structure and essence of a couple in particular. I didn't know what to do. My heart started to pound--I couldn't get an F on this! Then I remembered a line from the poem, "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish--"a poem should not mean, but be." I think MacLeish was saying that sometimes we over-analyze poetry, and that sometimes we just enjoy the poem for what it is--something lovely. That's what I wrote for my quiz answer. I turned it in and hurried out of class, swearing never to skip another reading assignment.
The next day, when he returned the papers, he had written, "Good use of just plain bull, Sharon. I'll let you slide this time, but next time, I'll expect you to be prepared!" He turned out to be the best teacher I had there--I learned much from him.
I didn't do much writing in college. I think I got a poem published in our literary magazine, but, like that bunny poem from third grade, I wasn't particularly pleased or proud of it. What I did in college, although I didn't know it then, was to learn to write by reading. Since I was an English major, I had to read all the classics--Keats, Byron, Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Whitman and hundreds of others. I read wonderful writers who could take a word and make it dance upon the page, and I read horribly boring writers who were so caught up in esoteric nonsense that the book was ponderous and very unsatisfying. I didn't know it at the time, but reading all those writers gave me the basic ingredients that would simmer for many years before I'd be ready to write words of my own. My focus was on becoming a teacher--the very best one that I could be. I had no desire to be a writer. I just loved to read good writing.
Shortly before I graduated from Pepperdine, I was offered a job to teach there in the English department. It was a great honor, but I felt I wasn't ready. I was 21 years old and not much older than the students I might be teaching. Besides, I wanted to teach high school and middle school. Those students, I felt, would be a lot more fun.
At our graduation ceremony, once again I was asked to give the commencement speech. This time my theme focused on vision and maturity and passion for beliefs. It was probably just a more mature version of my high school speech, but I got lots of compliments, and my parents were very proud.
Early Years of Teaching
I finished college in January, moved back to Ohio, and got married that June--to the young man I had run away from. We have not been apart since. We both got teaching jobs in the same school system--he at the high school, teaching biology, and me at the junior high, teaching English--two first-year teachers struggling with new jobs, a new marriage, and new responsibilities.
I remember working really hard to teach ALL my students, not just the good kids--the superstars. There was this one young man whose name was Bo who had difficulty with reading and writing and anything having to do with the English curriculum. But he tried. I worked with him at lunch time, and I'd give him alternate assignments on which he could feel some success. But I found out that was not correct "policy" of the school district.
The department head approached me one day and asked me, "So how does a student like Bo make a B in your class? He's failing everything else."
I smiled, sure I was about to be complimented. "I've been working with Bo, and I've given him extra help and special assignments so he can feel some success."
"You mean you varied from the adopted text?" He looked at me as if I had just robbed a bank.
"Well, yes, I did. Bo has never had any success in school, and he has shown so much improvement lately!" I was very proud of Bo's achievements.
"You are never to vary from the adopted text again!" he told me sternly.
"But Bo, and many other students like him, will fail if I just use that book!" I pleaded.
"Bo and students like him are meant to fail," he told me harshly. "You're wasting your time on giving him extra help. It won't make any difference. And if you continue to vary from the prescribed assignments in the adopted text, you're in danger of losing your job!" He slammed the door and left.
I was stunned. This wasn't why I went into teaching. I continued to help Bo, but he knew what the expectations were. Bo DID fail that year, and he dropped out a couple of years after that. That department head retired that summer, and was replaced by a woman who was warm and not so narrow-minded. But it was too late for Bo.
I learned to teach by teaching. There is no book that tells you what to do if a students barks just to cause trouble, or if he vomits in front of the class, or if a child's parent dies. There is no book that tells how to get the magic flow of teaching and learning, of chaos and control. It is learned by practice, by making mistakes, and by getting better at it because you love what you do. I loved books, and reading, and writing, so it was easy for me to transfer that love to my students. I remember what is was like to be twelve or fourteen, so I tried to make class interesting, and exciting. I used to hate boring classes, so I tried very hard for my classes never to be like that. We'd act out plays, or write poetry to music, or create stories out of newspaper articles. Always something new and exciting and different. Of course, not every day is exciting, but the passion was always there--the passion for learning and reading, and teaching kids how to appreciate books.
How the Writing Started
In January of 1977, I watched, fascinated, along with the rest of America, the televised version of Alex Haley's monumental book called Roots. Over 130 million people tuned in to watch the story of a slave called Kunta Kinte and how this young man, snatched from his native land and transported in the hold of a slave ship to this country, became the ancestor of a strong family of African Americans, the family of Alex Haley.
I was teaching at a junior high school at the time, and I remember that all the discussions, whether in the teacher's lounge or in the classroom, surrounded that powerful story. The situation was tense and polarized. The Black students felt angry and confrontational, while the white students, who the day before had been their friends, felt guilty and defensive. Class discussions brought out previously unspoken feelings and deeply hidden biases and hurts. Even though the dramatization sought to end each story with a message of hope, it was impossible to escape the realities of slavery, degradation, and human depravity. The film, and the book on which it was based, detailed the horrors of the hold of the slave ship, the shame of the auction block, the pain and confusion of families split apart, and the realities of forced labor under terrible conditions. But it also showed the unquenchable will to live, the determination to survive and overcome, and power of the human spirit. The dramatization of that book changed the lives of all us who witnessed it.
Alex Haley became a household name. His family history, and how he had been able to trace his roots back to Africa, a feat rarely accomplished by any Black American up to that point, became our own. He awakened an interest in genealogy, particularly among African Americans, and, finally, a way to reflect on the hideous past of slavery with something close to pride. He helped to transpose everyone's view of history. I admired him for his skill, his ability to write and draw a picture with words, as well as his humanity and humility.
Alex Haley was raised on a farm in Henning, Tennessee. There, he sat on the wide front porch of the family home, listening to stories from his maternal grandmother, Cynthia Palmer, who traced the family genealogy to Haley's great-great-great-great-grandfather, who was an African, called "Kin-tay" and brought by slave ship to America. Years later, Haley embarked on an odyssey that took eleven years and is now part of literature history. On basis of family tradition and his own research, Haley traveled to the village of Juffure, to trace his own ancestors. He met with the village griot, oral historian, who could name Haley's own ancestor Kunta Kinte.
The resulting book, Roots, was published in 1976 to much critical acclaim. The book sold in one year more than a million copies, one of which belonged to me.
I cherished that book and all it meant, and kept it on a special place in my bookcase. I used excerpts from the book, and later, from the videotapes when they were released, in my classroom. We discussed issues of fairness and racism and bigotry and redemption. We connected the ideas in the book with history lessons as well as with American literature of that period. We read poetry of Paul Dunbar, Claude McKay, and Walt Whitman, as well as Maya Angelou. We read the life of Lincoln, and the life of Frederick Douglass. My students devoured the concepts, accepted the challenges, and absorbed the underlying lessons that were offered through this integrated study. It was multicultural, cross-curricular teaching and learning at its best, and I didn't even know it. I just knew they were thriving and enjoying the learning process with no pain and much gain. Alex Haley helped me to do that.
By 1990, I was teaching ninth grade at a junior-senior high school, still focusing on cross-curricular lessons which touched on important concepts and issues. A student once asked me, "Don't you know you're an English teacher? Why you keep givin' us all this history and stuff?"
I just smiled and told him that a piece of literature made no sense unless you could understand its historical context. "You gotta know where the author is coming from," I explained. He looked at me doubtfully, but he truly enjoyed our choral reading of Robert Hayden's poem "Middle Passage" as we began our unit of American literature and history and culture that year, which was always climaxed by excerpts from the videotapes of Roots.
A large part of any English classroom is, of course, writing assignments, and I did my best to give meaningful assignments, and even opportunities for students to have their work published in various venues, like the library journal, or poetry contests. One day, a student named Jared came to me and handed me a crumpled piece of paper that had been ripped from a magazine. On it was an application for a short story contest. He said to me in that deep, almost gravel-sounding voice of challenge that only ninth-graders can have, "Here! You think you so bad-why don't YOU write something!"
I looked at him, grinned, and said, "Well, Jared, maybe I'll just do that!" I tossed it in my bag, along with cut slips, red pens, dozens of paperclips, six books, and three hundred ungraded papers, and forgot about it.
On the way home, I stopped by the grocery store to pick up fixings for dinner, thinking only of whether or not spaghetti sauce was on sale this week. I was pushing my cart down an aisle, when a woman came toward me from the other direction. In her cart was a chubby, almost cherubic-looking three-year-old, standing amidst the food items his mother had selected. He was grinning and reaching for her. Just as I passed them, instead of reaching for her son, I heard her say to him, "If you don't sit your stinkin', useless butt back down in that shopping cart, I swear I'll bust your greasy face in!"
Shocked, I looked at her sharply, but I said nothing. The child sat down heavily, his smile gone. She rushed past me and headed to the checkout lane. I found the spaghetti sauce and pasta I was looking for, but I was no longer hungry. I couldn't get the face of that child out of my mind. What kind of life must he have at home? If she treats him like this in public, what might she do in private?
When I got to the parking lot of the grocery store, I searched for the child and his mother, but they had vanished. Thinking back, perhaps I should have said something to her. Perhaps I should have followed her out and copied down the license plates of her car. To tell whom? The police? Social services? And tell them what? That she yelled at her child? That's not against the law.
I got home, fixed dinner, but I was distracted and impatient with my family. I could not stop thinking about that child. I sat down at my computer, and before I was consciously aware of it, I started writing. In two hours it was finished--only three typed pages--a powerful little short story that took that little boy home and saw his life through the eyes of my imagination.
I pulled out the application that Jared had given me, filled out the entry form, put the whole thing in an envelope and sealed it. I grabbed my coat, drove to the post office, and mailed it before I could think about it or change my mind. I was driven purely by emotion, not reason.
The next day I sheepishly told Jared that I had written something for the contest, and we continued with class. Eventually, I forgot about it.
Four months later, I was at home, sitting on my bed grading papers, which is a dangerous idea because sleep jumps up and grabs you in the middle of a paragraph! The phone rang, and a deep, cultured voice said, "May I speak to Sharon Draper, please?"
"I'm from Ebony magazine, and I'm in charge of the short story contest. We had thousands of entries, you know."
"I'm glad I didn't have to grade them," I chuckled. "How did I do?"
"I'm pleased to announce that your story, 'One Small Torch,' came in first place!"
"You're kidding! What does that mean?"
"It means your story will be published and very shortly we will be sending you a check for five thousand dollars!"
I gasped and screeched and I think I jumped on the bed, stepping all over graded and ungraded essays on Shakespeare.
When the story was printed, it was as if I had won the Pulitzer Prize. Reporters from the local newspaper asked to interview me. I got my picture, in full color, on the front page of the Tempo section, with a wonderful article on the story and its power and simplicity. I was a little overwhelmed. People started asking me for autographs.
"My autograph?" I asked. "I don't know how to sign an autograph! I sign detention slips!"
I got letters from people from all over the country, people who had read the story and were touched by it. I was amazed. But the most amazing and most treasured letter came in early 1991. On his own letterhead paper, written in his own handwriting, was a letter from someone I would never in a million years expect to hear from. It said, "Dear Mrs. Draper, I read your story and I think it is wonderful. You are a skilled writer and have much to offer. Keep up the good work." It was signed ALEX HALEY.
I trembled as I read it. I could not believe that the person I so admired, a writer I so respected, would take the time from his busy schedule to offer words of encouragement to me. He called me a writer! It was the first time that I even entertained the notion of being a "writer." I knew I was a teacher. I knew I was pretty good at editing student writing, but it never occurred to me that I, too, could be a writer.
I took the letter to school and showed my students and colleagues, where everyone was properly awed. Jared, the student who had started the whole process, had moved to another state, and I was never able to track him down and thank him, but the rest of my students and I celebrated with pizza and pop and, knowing me, probably a little poetry.
But the story doesn't end there. Just a year after he sent me that letter, Alex Haley died on February 10, 1992, and I was truly saddened. Not only was a great and generous man gone forever, but a voice in the darkness was forever silenced.
I continued to teach, using Alex Haley's words, his spirit, his ability to inspire in my lesson planning, and in my life as well. I decided I wanted to try to write a book, and was unbelievably successful with my first attempt, Tears of a Tiger.
Since I've have been an English teacher for almost thirty years, I know what kids like, what they will read, and what they won't. Although I have nothing against Charles Dickens, most teenagers would rather gag than read him. Dickens wrote for his contemporaries--young people of a hundred and fifty years ago. That's one of the reasons he was so popular--he wrote for his contemporaries! American kids of course need to know about the world of London in the 1860s, but they would much rather read about their own world first. Not only will they read about recognizable experiences with pleasure, but they will also be encouraged to write as well. I started my writing career for those young people.
Tears of a Tiger was written in study hall, on weekends, before and after school and during summer vacation. It is written for high school students--on their level, in their style, about their world. It's written for all teenagers. The characters are just ordinary kids trying to get through high school. The book does not deal with drugs or gangs or sex. It does, however, deal with parents, girlfriends, and homework. It also discusses the problems of drinking and driving, racism and teen suicide. I sent it to twenty-five publishing companies and got twenty-four rejection notices. The very last letter was a letter of acceptance from Simon and Schuster.
While I was waiting for that one to finish the publication process--it takes about a year and a half--I wrote another book for younger students. It is called Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs, and is written for children ages six to twelve. This one was accepted on the very first try. Ziggy is funny and a mystery, dealing with club houses and buried treasure and even includes a strong lesson on history that young readers learn without even knowing it. The response has been so wonderful that it has been made into a series. In the second book, Ziggy and his friends find an old, abandoned tunnel of the Underground Railroad and get lost in it. It's called Lost in the Tunnel of Time. The third book in this series is called Shadows of Caesar's Creek, and deals with the cultural connections of Native Americans, again through humor, excitement, and solid literary development. Kids can read this series and learn as well as enjoy the tale. Teachers can use these to teach.
Although it was not planned that way, both Tears of a Tiger and Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs hit the bookstores on the very same day! The response was tremendous and overwhelming. Parents have asked "Where have you been?" Kids are clamoring for the sequels. Schools are starting to adopt them in their curriculums. I don't think I have ever had a young person read Tears of a Tiger that did not like it. Actually, many of the teenagers who read it tell me they have never read a whole book before in their life, but they read that one in one night.
Tears of a Tiger received wonderful reviews, several national awards, and was awarded the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award, as well as being selected as an ALA Best Books for Young Adults for 1995. Amazing for a first book. Two years later I wrote the sequel, called Forged by Fire, which is a powerful piece for young people on child abuse and survival It won the 1997 Coretta Scott King Award, as the best book published last year for young people by an African-American author. It also won several other awards, but it is close to my heart because Chapter One of Forged by Fire is "One Small Torch," the story that won first prize in that short story contest! At the award ceremony, I took special pains to mention Alex Haley and how influential he had been on my life.
Twenty-three years after the showing of Roots on television, nine years after I received the letter from Alex Haley, and three years after the publication of Forged by Fire, I sat in the back seat of a car, heading down the sunny roads of Tennessee, toward the little town of Clinton, toward Alex Haley's farm, the place he built when he became successful as a writer. I was giddy with excitement. Of course, the farm now belonged to the Children's Defense Fund, but many of the original buildings remained, and I knew that Alex Haley's spirit walked those lanes and breathed peacefully in the air of the library that had been built there.
The purpose of my visit there was to speak to a group of young people who had read Forged by Fire during their stay there and who wanted to hear from the author. These young people were special-not the top of their class or the children usually picked for special events like this one. These kids were difficult, troubled, needy in mind and spirit, and on the edge-just about ready to fall off, drop out, give up. But they were brought there to build up their spirits, to repair their damaged self-esteem, to offer them hope and possibilities. The only attention that these tenth graders had ever received in school was negative attention. In just a few days, like wilted daisies that just needed a little water and attention, I saw them blossom, bloom, and grow, as they received the nurturing attention of the staff. They were given encouragement for once in their lives; they were given goals and responsibilities. It was amazing to see the changes in them as they received something that we assume all young people are given, but unfortunately, too many of them grow to maturity without it-positive reinforcement and love.
On the last day, they marched in proudly for the graduation ceremonies. They sang, they hugged, they wept. I spoke to them about dreams and rainbows and golden possibilities, which can be found in spite of the harsh realities of many of their lives. I told them of Alex Haley and how he had influenced my life and how, even long after his death, he touched and inspired all of us. And I charged them with heading out into the future with heads held high.
They cheered and we proceeded to that wide, welcoming porch, exactly like the one where long ago, Alex's grandmother told him those stories about the captured slave, and I signed copies of my books which had been inspired by his spirit. It was humbling and awesome.
I was almost finished and a young man approached me. He was long and gangly and had eyes that had seen pain in spite of the grin on his face. His name was Kyrus.
"You got any more of them Tears of a Tiger books?"
"I'm sorry, they're all gone," I replied with regret. I had brought a few books with me, and not realizing how powerful a good book can be in the hands of a child who needs it, I had not brought enough. I had just given away the last one.
"I ain't never read no book before-not all the way through. But your book was good. I couldn't put it down. My moms couldn't believe it-cause I was readin'. I read Forged by Fire in one night."
"I'll be glad to sign Forged by Fire for you, but we've run out of Tears of a Tiger. I'm really sorry."
"Oh, that's OK. Just write down the title. I don't hardly ever go to the library, but I'm gonna go to the library as soon as I get home and see if I can find it. I just gotta read that book!"
Now I had one copy left of Tears of a Tiger. It was the copy I used when I gave presentations and it was battered and torn and dirty, with markings all through it. It was in the bottom of my purse. I dug down and pulled it out slowly.
"This is my own copy, and it's a little beat up, but if you want it, you can have it."
"For real? Oh, I can?"
"I said it's yours," I said gently. I wrote, "For my friend Kyrus-may all your dreams come true," on the front page and signed my name. He was almost dancing with excitement. I was near tears.
"I'm gonna read this on the plane," he said. "I bet I'll have it finished before I get home. Wait till I show my moms! Thank you so much!"
I handed him the book and he bounded off the porch in two steps, crowing to his friends in exultation that he'd received the very last copy of Tears of a Tiger. He clutched the book to him like it was the Holy Grail. Maybe, in a sense, it was. I could feel the presence of Alex Haley smiling broadly.
National Teacher of the Year
People often ask, " So how do you get to be the Teacher of the Year anyhow?" A few years ago, I would not have been able to answer that question. I never had any great plans to grow up and be the National Teacher of the Year. I remember once seeing a glimpse of a teacher in the Rose Garden of the White House and wondering vaguely to myself, "How did she get to do that?" I bet I could do that, but I didn't have the foggiest notion how. I remember also reading about a National Teacher of the Year flying in Air Force One with the President. Wow. That's the kind of thing that happens to other people in other states. No one we know ever does wonderful things like that. Until now.
It all started very simply. It was May of 1997. The principal of my school handed me an application, about twenty pages in length, that said on the front cover, "Ohio Teacher of the Year-1997. He said, "Why don't you try this?" I shrugged and said, "OK, why not?" I had no notion of where that short conversation might lead. I had no grand plan. I filled out the application, which was thoughtful, required broad thinking, and good writing style.
Since then, I have found out since that many states do the application process quite differently. In South Carolina, for example, a local winner is chosen from every single school in every single city. The winner of the city teacher of the year is announced at a breakfast and celebrated at a formal dinner with gowns and tuxedos. Then that teacher's application goes to the country level, where the process is repeated, then finally to the state level. All this is a wonderful idea and should be emulated. It gives a glorious opportunity for dozens of teachers to be recognized, celebrated, praised and lauded as they should be. They are given plaques, or certificates or golden apples, and they go back to their classrooms refreshed, renewed and rededicated.
But in Cincinnati, we simply fill out the application, and someone in the central office picks a candidate to go to the state competition. In 1997, they picked me. I think there were about six candidates. I got a phone call in June, telling me my application would be sent to the state. I was pleased, but I still had no sense of the big picture at that point. Shortly after school started in September, I got another phone call. I had been selected as one of the four finalists for Ohio Teacher of the Year!
On October 24, I was in the middle of sixth bell, teaching Chaucer to my seniors. The door to my classroom opened. In walked the principal, the assistant principal, several secretaries, the hall monitors, every teacher with a free bell, the superintendent of Cincinnati schools, the head of the school board, John Goff, the State Superintendent of Education, half a dozen reporters snapping photos and others with bright lights and video cameras, and my husband Larry and six of his students! Needless to say, I was at a loss for words. John Goff said, "Let me be the first to congratulate you as the 1997 Ohio Teacher of the Year!" My class went wild. The kids cheered. I grabbed my face in a gesture of surprise, and lifted my arms as if to say, "Wow!" That picture, in full color, appeared on the front page of the Cincinnati Enquirer the next day, covering almost the whole top half of the front page. I drove down the street, just marveling at my picture in those little newspaper stands, over and over and over!
Everyone was so supportive and so genuinely glad for me. From the lady at the cleaners, to the man at the drugstore, to the tellers at my local bank, who all stopped what they were doing when I walked in the door, to clap and cheer, everyone felt proud to share my success. I was a part of the community and I had made them all stand tall with pride. I was overwhelmed and humbled.
Being named Ohio Teacher of the Year was plenty for me. I still had no great dreams of heading for the National competition. The Ohio Teacher of the Year is a position of great responsibility, as are each of the State Teacher positions. I would travel all over the state of Ohio, speaking to teachers and educational organizations, but would still continue teaching. It promised to be an exciting year. But the application of each State Teacher of the Year is passed on to the national office, for consideration to be National Teacher of the Year.
I was certainly no greater than any of those fine teachers, any one of whom could have been chosen. One evening in January the phone rang. It was Jon Quam, the director of the National Teacher of the Year program. He said, "I'm calling to tell you that you have been selected as one of four finalists for the 1997 National Teacher of the Year, and to ask you if would you like to accept this opportunity." Now this was the first moment where I started to get giddy, to look to the future, to imagine the possibilities. I grinned at the phone, told him, "Yes, of course, I'd be honored," and other sorts of correct phrases, and hung the phone up and screamed with delight.
From that time until March when the four finalists would meet the National Teacher of the Year committee, I studied, read Education Week, met with people in educational field here in town that I respected and admired, such as our Superintendent of Education, Mike Brandt, and read as much as I could about all aspects of education. For now I was not only seeking to speak for the teachers in Ohio, but for all of the three million teachers in this country. I needed to be familiar with all aspects of the educational spectrum. I wanted to be knowledgeable, secure, confident. I had to prepare a ten-minute presentation for the committee, which is made up of fourteen members of the educational community, representing the major educational organizations, such the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the National School Boards Association, etc.
I flew to Washington, D.C., the first week of March. For three days the four of us who were finalists were put through the paces--interviews, press conferences, dinners, videotaping, a presentation, questions about education. It was thrilling, stimulating, exhausting, and probably the best educational process I had ever experienced. They sent us home then with a promise to call us in a week or so. I came home feeling confident, but not overly so. There is just no telling what reasons that committees make decisions behind closed doors.
We had been told that if we were NOT selected as the National Teacher of the Year, we would receive a phone call from Jon Quam, the director of the program. If we WERE selected, we would receive a call from our State Superintendent of Education. In Ohio, that was John Goff. Either way, I would get a call from someone named John. All my family knew it. When the call came, I wasn't home. My daughter Crystal, who was fifteen, answered the phone.
When I got home, I asked, "Were there any calls?'
"Yes," she replied sweetly.
"Well," I asked, "who called?"
"Oh," she said innocently, "somebody named John called."
"John who?" I asked.
"I don't know," she replied, grinning with delight. "I forgot to ask."
Now she knew full well which John had called, but she really enjoyed making me sweat. Ten minutes later John Goff called and said, with real pleasure in his voice, "Sharon, once again, it is my pleasure to congratulate you. Let me be the first to say congratulations to the 1997 National Teacher of the Year!"
I didn't scream this time. I whispered. "Really?" I asked. My face was about to burst from the giant grin on my face.
"Yes, really," he replied. "We are all so proud of you. And by the way, you can't tell anybody!"
Now how was I going to keep such a wonderful thing a secret? My students, my friends, my parents? The White House placed an embargo on the news, which could not be officially announced until April, when the President of the United States greets the new National Teacher of the Year in the Rose Garden. I told my family, and my parents of course, and my principal and superintendent, but the news stayed under wraps until just a couple of days before we left for Washington.
It was a glorious journey, because every step was an unplanned adventure, a new height to climb to and reach. I never planned to reach the summit of that mountain, but the view was spectacular. I knew I had so much to offer the teachers of this country, and others who didn't know or understand the educational world as well. I was proud and ready to begin the next climb, which promised to be a full mountain range, with paths untouched and for which no map was written. But I was ready.
So many confused ideas-where does the rhetoric end and the true feelings begin? I say to people that I'm proud and humbled and surprised that I was selected as National Teacher of the Year, and I am, but in my heart of hearts, I knew I was ready. Through most of the process, I felt confident and relaxed and qualified. One statement that I made to the committee was very true, and I guess I said it with real passion because I really believed it. I have been preparing for this job since I was born, and I didn't even know it.
From my mother reading to me, and encouraging me through school, to all those days in classes, through college, I always liked school, loved learning, loved the mental challenge of sucking the information in and assimilating it, storing it, and being able to retrieve it, and then share it--effectively, and with style.
When I got up to give that speech, wearing a bright orange suit that I was sure would resonate on television, I felt no fear. I took a deep breath, looked at all those cameras, and began to speak. Even though I had the speech written, I gave it from memory. Proud, humbled, excited, and confident, I began.
National Teacher of the Year
Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. Secretary. Honored guests.
I am so very proud to be a teacher!
I am proud of all of the students whose lives have intersected with mine. And because of that moment in time together, all of us are better. For each of them taught me as well and to them I say, I love you all.
I am proud of my colleagues--three million of us--striving to make a difference in the lives of the children.
This apple, which shines with proud intensity for all teachers, represents
- the knowledge of the past,
- the responsibility of the present,
- and the hope of the future.
As we build this wonderful bridge to the twenty-first century, let us remember that we will need teachers to instruct us how to build it, teachers to guide us across its intricate paths, and teachers who stand ready in the twenty-first century to take us to new paths and bridges as yet undreamed.
And who will walk that path? The children. Imagine a child--any child, every child--hopeful, enthusiastic, curious. In that child sleeps the vision and the wisdom of tomorrow. The touch of a teacher will make the difference.
More on Writing
After being National Teacher of the Year, it's hard to go back to the world of classrooms and bells, homework and faculty meetings. I had had the opportunity to travel to almost every state, to dozens of cities, and hundreds of schools. I'd been to Russia. I had seen excellent teachers all over this country, and schools that did a wonderful job of educating young people. I'd been exposed to different kinds of teaching--innovative methods of reaching students. I had been in airports in strange cities at six in the morning, as well as at midnight. I'd experienced the glories of a hotel like the Ritz-Carlton, and the Spartan cleanliness of a Motel 6. How was I to return to my classroom? It wasn't that I felt that I was too "big" or famous to return; it's just that my world had expanded. I had been instrumental in helping teachers all over the country feel good about themselves, about how influential they are in the lives of the students they teach. My classroom stage had expanded.
So when I returned to Cincinnati after that glorious year, I wasn't sure what to do. The new National Teacher of the Year had taken my place, and, like Cinderella, I had to give up my coach and magic slippers to return to the real world. I decided to take a position in our professional development academy. It gave me an opportunity to work with teachers, and gave me a little more freedom than I would have had back in my classroom. I missed having students around, but I got to visit schools as part of my job, and that helped. But more than anything, I wanted to write. I had more books that had been published by this time--Romiette and Julio, and two more Ziggy books. My dream was to retire from teaching so I could dedicate myself to writing full time.
Two years later, I was able to do just that. I officially retired from teaching, and headed home to be a writer. What a glorious opportunity--to be able to get up each morning and sit down at my computer and write all my thoughts and dreams and ideas! Of course, reality is never quite like the dream, because I found that even though I didn't have to go to work, so many other things gobbled my time that I had to squeeze my writing in. I was asked to come and speak at schools and conferences. Since I was no longer teaching, I was free to do that. It was a little like the National Teacher of the Year experience, only on a less powerful channel.
I never really stopped teaching--I just changed my area of expertise. Writing and teaching are mixed up together and can't be separated. I started writing as a result of my teaching, and now, my writing has become a teaching tool. I starting writing for students, for the kids I knew who didn't like to read, who weren't inspired by books or literature. Now the books are used in schools all over the country, and teachers use them as learning tools for their classes. When I speak to students at schools, all I really do is an extended version of what I've always done, which is teach. I instruct, I inspire, I entertain--I love it! I know that working with young people in schools has helped my writing because I've been able to talk to students from all over the country, not just one classroom. In essence, thousands of classrooms are now mine and we get to share with each other through the books.
I like visiting schools because that gave me the opportunity to talk to young people--to see how they thought and even see what the latest fashion trends were. I couldn't write about kids wearing jeans with belts, for example, when it was clear that everyone wore their jeans down low on their behinds, held up with nothing but hips and hope.
After the success of Tears of a Tiger, Forged by Fire, and Romiette and Julio, I wasn't sure what to write next. But I started getting letters from young people--hundreds of them. They wanted to know what happened to Angel and Gerald, two of the characters from the first two books. They wanted to know if Rhonda and Tyrone, two young lovers mentioned in both novels, ever broke up. They believed in them as if the characters were real people.
When I was visiting a school, a young lady came up to me and said, "I need Keisha's home phone number!"
I told her quietly, "Keisha's not real. I made her up."
Not at all influenced by that, she continued, "Oh I know you changed her name to protect her privacy, but that girl got some issues, and I think I can help her. I gotta talk to her right away!"
Because of the huge amount of interest in the kids from Hazelwood High, I wrote the third book in what is now a trilogy. It's called Darkness Before Dawn, and it takes all the characters from Tears of a Tiger and Forged by Fire and brings the story to a conclusion. I'm still getting letters, however, to write more about these kids. Perhaps one day I will, but right now, I'm working on new projects and new novels.
I still get dozens of emails a week. Many students tell me, "I never liked to read" or "I've never read a whole book before" but "I read your book in one night and I couldn't wait to read the others." They like the reality and the honesty of the stories and locations and characters.
Sometimes I get letters from young people or their teachers who want to know why I write about such powerful subjects--like abuse or suicide. I think that difficult or controversial subjects should be handled with skill and delicacy. It is possible to describe a horrible situation, such as child abuse, without using graphic details. Such subjects dealt with in this manner can then be discussed intelligently because it is the ideas and thoughts we want young readers to share, not the experience itself. We are all attracted to tragedy. That's why soap operas and sad movies are so popular. I think there's something within each of us that wants to look at tragedy from the outside so that we don't have to experience it personally. The other difficult issues or social problems I deal with are very real in the lives of many readers. We don't live in a world of sugarplum fairies and happily ever after. Perhaps reading about the difficulties of others will act like armor and protect my readers from the personal tragedies in their own lives.
Many of the letters I receive from students are very touching. Sometimes they tell me that reading one of the books changed their lives. I had a student tell me she called the child abuse hotline that is printed in the back of Forged by Fire.
She said, "I read your book. I called that number. You saved my life." I still get chill bumps when I think of that. Another student wrote that he was depressed and was thinking of taking his life, but after reading Tears of a Tiger, he decided to live. I counseled him to talk to someone he trusted, and he wrote me back that he had. Another student said she was reading Tears of a Tiger in class and that weekend some of her friends were drinking at a party. She thought about BJ in the book (who doesn't drink), so she called her mother to come and pick her up. Her friends were killed that night in an automobile accident. It's an awesome responsibility to have so much response to what I've written. That's why I try so hard to make every single book ring true and honest and why I try to be available to my readers. I try to answer every single email and every single letter that I receive.
Some of the letters are funny, however. Often students write, "I have to do a report on you. Tell me everything you know about yourself. My report is due tomorrow, so please reply quickly."
The Writing Process
A typical writing day starts early in the morning--maybe around five or six. I must have absolute silence--no music, no telephone, not even a fan can be blowing. Then I find my "zone" and enter it. It's a magic flow of thoughts and words. Sometimes the thoughts come faster than I can type them. It's exciting, exhilarating, and wonderful. And it is truly a blessing. The characters come and they create themselves. They become like real people to me--living, breathing young people who share the same fears and frustrations that all teenagers experience.
I start with an idea, or a problem or a conflict, or even a situation that might be pertinent to the lives of young people, then the characters grow from that point. I try to make strong characters that change and develop and learn from their mistakes. I try to make characters so real that young people believe they are real people, and many do.
I'll write all day--maybe until eight or nine at night, when my fingers are so tired I can't write any longer. But I start again the next morning. I try to block off at least two weeks at a time to write, but I can't always do that.
I can write about a chapter a day if I have no interruptions, but usually there are interruptions-the dog has to go out, I have to go the post office, etc. When I come back to it, I revise it or expand it and change it, each time making it better and stronger. When I finish the whole book, usually in two to three months, I go back and edit it. I fix, change, and rearrange. Then I do it again. Then one more time. That may take several more months. Then I send it in to my editor who fixes and changes it even more. It may go through three or four or even five edits with her. Then, it goes through a final edit with the copy editor. That may take another six to eight months. Writing is easy. Editing is very tedious and painful. When a book is finally done, it may have taken more than a year to get it just right, and even then, I'm never really satisfied with it. I still wish I had perfected it just a little more.
I try not to work on more than one project at a time, but during my breaks from a current project, I might do some research for something else, because that's next in line. Writing for me is a very fluid process--I sit down a wait for the words to come. They usually do-in buckets and waves. It's amazing. I look upon it as a blessing because the words come so easily. The plot is born from the idea, then is crafted by the characters and how they respond to what happens to them. It's a thrilling, exciting process. When you people ask me how to become a writer, I tell them first of all that I understand their desire--that need to express themselves through writing. A real writer is thirsty for it, wants to write more than anything else in the world. I tell them, "If you find yourself scribbling on notebook paper, or daydreaming about storylines, or jotting down lines of poetry at the mall, you ARE a writer! A writer is not something you become. A writer is something that you are." That gives them validation and power to continue.
There is no secret to becoming a writer. The best way to become a writer is to write. I tell them to get one of those blank journals, and just keep on writing until it is filled. Then write some more and fill another one. You don't have to show it to anyone--just write whenever the needs arises. It's like an athlete. Much practice is done alone. At game time, the athlete shines. Game time for a writing athlete is a paper due for school, or a short story, or a poem.
Then I try to show them the importance of reading. I tell them to read the classics--Faulkner, Tennyson, Shakespeare, Dickens--all of them. I tell them to read poetry as well because the rhythms are essential to good writing--Keats, Dunbar, Hughes, Whitman--all of them. Good writers are powerful motivators. I even tell them to read bad writers as well. How is one to know a good book if one has never read a bad book? Then they must write, write, write. Practice, revise, make it perfect, then do it again. Many times young writers are too anxious to get published, and not willing to do the necessary reading and studying to become really proficient at the art and skill of writing. An Olympic athlete starts by running laps with no audience at all. A true champion knows the power of practice.
Students often ask me how I knew I wanted to write. I tell them it's because I must. I love it. Writing makes me happy. I wish the same for everyone.
For further information, read Sharon M. Draper: Embracing Literacy
by KaaVonia Hinton
Letter to the Teen Me
You'll travel to Africa and China and Russia. Your books will win lots of awards and be translated into many languages. People from all over the world will read what you have written. Seventh graders who won't be born for another thirty years will think you are awesome!
So smile in the sunlight, teen Sharon. Take your time. Climb the ladder. Read a zillion books. Scribble a thousand ideas on notebook paper. Then, when it's time, start writing, and see what happens. I think you'll like the twenty-first century.
All my best,
Sharon at fourteen. With dog Trinka. Gee, I loved that dog. Lots of snow in Cleveland, Ohio each year.
Sharon at fifteen. Shy and studious. That's a mohair sweater--all the rage at the time. EVERYBODY had one. Even then I liked bright colors.
Sharon at sixteen. Ready to face the world. That's what you're supposed to say, but nobody is ever really ready.
Sharon as a young student teacher. Still studious. Learning to be not so shy. Gasp! I cut my hair. Miniskirts were in.