When I open the door to Room 315, I receive a standing ovation from kids I’ve never met before. They stand around clusters of desks, some clapping and smiling, others just clapping and staring. After the clapping has stopped, a girl standing at the desk cluster nearest me recites a welcome speech. In her speech, she points out the chair at the front of the room that has been designated for me. A colorful piece of paper has been taped to its front. The paper reads: “This Chair is For Ms. Salaam. Keep calm and keep on READING. Keep on writing!”
I’m touched by the enthusiastic welcome and nervous about living up to whatever hype the teacher has generated around my visit. But this is my ninth and final classroom visit to the school, and I survived the first eight, so I think I’ll be okay.
I nodded a lot
At the beginning of the 2014/’15 school year, I committed to volunteering one afternoon per week in my daughter’s classroom. I showed up exactly one time. And then, for three consecutive weeks, I called the teacher, apologizing for my busy schedule. After that, I forgot all about my initial commitment for a good seven months.
In March, during a meeting with the principal to discuss my daughter’s education, I was struck with the sudden desire for him to think I’m smart.
“Blah blah blah professional writer,” I said, “but I also used to be a teacher so I totally get the blah blah blah.”
He responded with something about me coming back and talking to some classes about my job, to which I nodded a lot and said, “Yes, yes. Of course. No problem. Just let me know.”
Despite my eagerness to please, I questioned what I’d gotten myself into when he cc’d me on an email sent to every single teacher at the school. In it, he explained that he’d found a parent willing and available to come talk to their students about writing or hold a writing workshop or whatever they needed.
When I told my husband, he shook his head and grimaced with glad-I’m-not-you empathy. “What’re you going to do?” he asked.
“I’m going to hope no one responds,” I said.
But they did.
I’m scared of kids, especially in a classroom setting. I’m afraid they’ll publicly poke fun at my overgrown eyebrows, my coffee-stained teeth, or the errant black hair growing out of my chin. When I’m around unfamiliar children, I smile a lot and try really hard to act like one of those super peppy and friendly moms who have an abundance of good times and joy to share with all. The truth is, most of the time, I just want to go out drinking with my friends where I can curse and be inappropriate and totally un-mom-like. So then of course, I become afraid that these children will see through all of my fake awesome mom-ness.
Then there were all the angry anonymous letters to the editor generated in response to a story I wrote about Eastlake, some of which could have come from the parents of the very children I’d now committed to standing in front of. I imagined their dinner-table conversations:
“Guess what? We’re having a special guest come to our classroom!”
“Oh, yeah, Junior? Who?”
“A real writer! That’s what Ms. So-and-So says.”
“I hope it’s not that horrible woman from the Reader. We hate her, and you should, too.”
But the guilt from failing to show up for weeks of classroom volunteer time won out over all my fears, and I said yes to every email that came in requesting my presence.
Long ago, I taught fourth grade in the Bronx. I did it for four years. I quit for four reasons: 1) I was terrible at it. 2) I could not sustain a smile for six hours a day every day. 3) I lost my ability to feign concern over the one-hundred-thousandth barely visible skin scrape acquired on the playground. 4) My failures made me want to cry every single day.
I always loved both the idea of an awesome lesson plan and the process of planning those lessons, so I was revved up after some of my conversations with the teachers. But when it came down to getting myself psyched for each visit, there were many times I wanted to cry.
A few friendly faces
On my first day, I stressed over what one wears to talk to a group of sixth-graders about a job that doesn’t require a fireman’s uniform, a cop’s gunbelt, or a lawyer’s tie and briefcase. I was tempted to show up in one of the sweats-plus-sweater combinations I normally work in. In the end, however, I settled on a working-outside-the-house skirt and shirt option. And heels, because the average sixth-grader is taller than I am.
Their teacher had made it clear that she wanted me to talk about opening hooks, how to capture your audience’s attention. So, I brought in four examples of stories I’d published, intending to read the opening paragraphs and ask the students why they would or would not choose to continue reading based on what I read.
When I walked in, the kids stared. I tried a stiff smile. Some waved shyly. The teacher gestured me toward a chair in the front, and I sat in it. I felt minuscule and at a total disadvantage. The heels I’d worn gave me no advantage sitting down except that they helped my feet reach the ground.
I took a deep breath and clasped my hands together loosely in front of me to keep them from shaking. I read from a couple of the articles I’d brought, and as they answered questions about the effectiveness of my opening paragraphs, I began to relax. It wasn’t just that no one threw anything at me or mentioned my teeth; they smiled at me and remained engaged. They ceased to be a blur of scary kids and became instead a series of individuals whose faces took on familiarity as my eyes roamed the room looking for raised hands. The same kids raised their hands every time. It wasn’t long before I had found a few friendly faces in the crowd and my stiff smile became genuine.
After the exercise they wanted to know what I thought, what my job is like, what I enjoy about being “an author.”
“What books have you written?”
“What type of writing do you like to do? Juicy stories? Informational? Educational?”
“So, let me get this straight. You interviewed a woman about how she steals from Target, and she gives you the straight truth?”
“What’s the hardest part about your job?”
“Do you think this is keeping your life interesting?”
“Do you have any tips on how to create good hooks?”
I volleyed the questions with answers and sometimes with questions of my own. I asked:
“Who wants to be a writer?”
“What do you love about it?”
“What are your favorite kinds of stories to read or write?”
I can talk reading and writing all day every day. Stories and writing and playing with language are what I love. Looking out at their eager faces, I remembered myself at their age — whole days spent reading my favorite books over and over again, or writing poetry inspired by Shel Silverstein. In those 40 minutes, I ceased to be a fake mom, a nervous Nelly, a failed teacher, an unreliable volunteer, and got to see myself instead as a former sixth-grade girl who always knew she wanted to be a writer and became one.
When they lined up for my autograph, I got teary.
Babbling and iPads
In one of the fourth-grade classes, I was nervous to see at least half of the students using iPads to record me babbling about my favorite books I’ve read and the stories I’ve published. The teacher had asked my permission and I okayed it because there was no reason they shouldn’t be able to do it. But it’s disconcerting to talk to a room full of iPads where heads should be.
They displayed stories they’d written directly from their iPads onto a screen in the front of the room — without getting up out of their seats. To the technologically impaired, it was like a magic trick. It also made it easy for me to offer feedback.
I eventually found my groove and enjoyed hanging out with the fourth-graders, iPads and all. They were a funny group, eager to share their work and engage in a conversation about reading and writing.
The first-graders didn’t care about my job. They didn’t share their work on iPads, and their line of questioning was limited.
“Are you an author?”
“What are the names of your books?”
“Do you write kids’ books?”
“Which books did you write?”
And then they sat in silence on the rug, their necks cranked up at me. They stared, waiting for me to tell them what to do.
Talking to six-year-olds about using vivid details in their writing is a lot more challenging than discussing audience hooks with 11- and 12-year-olds. But first-graders are so much cuter than sixth-graders. Half of them have holes in their mouths where their teeth used to be, and the other half have sets of some-large-some-small teeth. And they are squirmy little peanuts.
The teachers and I decided to have the two first-grade classes use the interview process to mine their little brains for details. The students in one class interviewed each other about “the best toy ever” while the other students worked around the topic “The best part of my spring break.”
Sounds simple enough, but it was a three-day, three-part lesson during which the students learned what an interview is and generated questions to ask, performed the interviews, and wrote their pieces.
The execution of the lesson was far from flawless.
On interview day, the students spread out around the room for their interviews, tucking themselves into corners and on the floor beside the minuscule desks jammed with their papers and pencil boxes. I lurked around the edges to observe.
I witnessed an interview between Eager Girl and Painfully Shy Boy. Although the girl held the two-dimensional laminated microphone to his face and plied him with questions about his favorite toy and what it does, what he likes about it (say anything, please!), the boy managed only to whisper “Pokemon Ball” before his interview time was up. His anxiety visibly deflated at the sound of the teacher’s voice, but Eager Girl looked at me as if to say, “What was I supposed to do?” I shrugged and gave her a high-five for effort.
I observed one of two rough-and-tumble looking boys in cargo shorts and T-shirts describing the Monster High Twyla doll that his mom won’t let him get because he has too many dolls already.
“Um, what parts does it have?” the other boy asked, reading from the class-generated questions on the easel a few feet away.
“She has a purse and a diary and a pet bunny,” the interviewee said with dreamy glee.
“Um, what do you like about it?” the other boy asked after another quick glance at the easel.
In the end, I didn’t feel quite as connected to the first-graders as I had with the sixth- and the fourth-. Maybe it was because I played the role of teacher rather than that of discussion facilitator or answerer of questions. The teachers and the principal assured me that having an outside visitor in the classroom has positive impacts. My best friend told me the story of how a bit of praise inspired her to become a writer when she was in the sixth grade. I wasn’t exactly sure what her point was, given that she’s not a writer, but then she punctuated with, “You’re potentially having a great influence on little kids.”
It was a conversation with my first-grade daughter that convinced me that my time in her class was not for naught.
“Mommy, my friends at school think you’re just, like, fancy earrings and dresses and stuff,” she said. “They don’t know the real you who sits on the couch in sweats playing Jelly Splash.”
“That’s cool,” I said. “Let’s not tell them.”
Thank you for smiling
The first-grade teachers sent me cards handmade by their students:
“Dear Mrs. Salaam, Thank you for teaching us how to write better and for spending time in our classroom and insiring me to write stories.”
“Dear Mrs. Salaam, Thank you for spending your time in our classroom. insiring to write slories. letting me get to know you. It was nise meeting you. Thank you for coming.”
“Dear Mrs. Salaam Thank you for teaching us about details it helped make writing better.”
The fourth- and sixth-grade teachers and the principal sent emails of thanks.
To all of which I was inclined to respond:
“Thank you for getting me out of my own head and out of my pajamas. Thank you for helping me forget about the shortened attention span of the average American and that some people think print is dead. Thank you for helping me forget that sometimes my competition for freelance work is someone across the world who is willing to do the same job for 1¢ per word or for free. Thank you for helping me remember how much fun it is to talk about writing and reading. Thank you for smiling at me. Thank you for engaging me. I think you’re really awesome. All of you.”
In my ninth and final class, the standing ovation is pretty damn cool. So is the chair. And so is the eagerness of each student who comes up to the overhead projector to display and read aloud the openings of their narratives. They are proud to show their work, but they are also excited by the feedback of what they can do in their revisions to make their stories better. It’s energizing. When it’s over, the teacher pulls someone in from the hallway to use her iPhone to take a picture of all of us together.
The entire class walks me to the door. Before I leave the room, a frail little girl pushes to the front of all the high-fivers and in a tiny little voice says, “Before you came I was so scared to meet you.”
“Well, did I turn out to be the scary monster you thought I would be?” I ask.
“No,” she says, smiling.
“You either,” I say.