(Not So) Common Sense
Out of the mouths of babes...
By Carole Townsend
Have you been to an elementary school lately? Perhaps some of you have; many of you likely have children who are still in the primary grades, as my parents used to call them. Our youngest child is 23 years old, so it’s been a while for me. A long while. Tuesday morning changed all that.
I was invited this week to address the entire 5th grade class at a local elementary school, about writing, and being an author, and about how one might go about making that choice in life. Actually, I was invited about a month ago, so I had four weeks to stew and worry about the prospect. I get many opportunities to speak publicly, to adults. I am interviewed on television and radio pretty regularly, and neither of those makes me nervous any longer, I’m happy to say.
But to stand in front of hundreds of students, and talk to them about writing and why it’s the coolest career ever? The mere thought made my palms sweaty. I suppose the nerves stemmed from memories of my own childhood and school career that have stuck with me all this time. Kids haven’t changed much in forty or so years. They are still keenly observant and bluntly honest.
Well Tuesday came, and there I was, standing in front of a sea of fifth graders who expected me to entertain them for an hour or so. The Powerpoint presentation on which I had spent hours making just right, just funny enough to hold a child’s attention, with just enough information about writing to pique her interest, did not arrive as planned. The presentation of which I was so proud never made it to the right person’s laptop through e-mail. She told me that as soon as she got to the front office to walk me back. I felt my stomach tighten, like a rag being wrung out dry.
Oh please, God, don’t let me get sick. Please.
Hundreds of children, and no visual aids to hold their attention. I don’t know why I was surprised. I prepared a visual presentation for the last speaking engagement I had. I emailed it, as directed. It arrived, as hoped. However, the event’s producers forgot to queue it up as I began to speak. To make things worse, I didn’t even notice that my presentation wasn’t being shown as I spoke, so I was making references to slides that weren’t there. I’m not expecting to be invited back to that event anytime soon.
But as I often do, I have gotten off topic. The children at this school were excited just to be someplace besides their normal classroom, so they were jazzed up. Remember that feeling? I do. As they took jostled along and took their seats, they arm-punched some, tripped some and pulled the long pigtails of still others. Boy, do I remember.
As each class single-filed in and followed their teacher’s instructions, one young man sitting on the front row shouted to me as I took the stage, “’Sup?” He was as cute as he could be. Still, I was surprised at the salutation. I’m old enough to be his, well, you know, yet he felt comfortable enough to throw out a slang greeting to someone the age equivalent of his grandma.
“Pardon?” I asked. “’Sup? What does that mean, exactly. We are having supper after this class?”
Laughter rolled through the rows of seated children like the wave at a baseball game. Hot crowd, I thought.
The laughter was cut short by Mr. Smooth’s teacher, who had heard him ask me “’Sup?”
“Do we talk to adults like that? Do we talk to authors like that?” she asked Smooth.
“How do we speak respectfully to adults?”
“How are you, Ma’am?” Smooth answered, both embarrassed and a little proud of himself. His sheepish grin spoke volumes, and I automatically picked him as my favorite.
As I launched into my talk about how I became an author and a journalist, how young I was when I understood that I loved writing, and all of the very cool things I’ve gotten to do in my life as the result of choosing to write, something amazing happened. I had the attention of hundreds of eager, precious little faces. They were fascinated to learn that writers don’t just sit at a desk and write things someone else tells them to write (well, sometimes we do).
Writers travel, and talk to famous people, and ride in impossibly fast race cars, and explore and learn about captivating things. Writers write the books that take other people all around the world, and sometimes into make-believe worlds. Journalists write the things that make a difference in the world. We tell people how to help dogs who need homes. We tell people about little children who are battling life-threatening illnesses. We tell people about other people, who have done both great and terrible things. Very often, we shape others’ view of a very big world, and we do that with words.
The children Tuesday were enthralled, politely raising their little hands every time they had questions, or when I asked them questions. Their eyes widened; they didn’t squirm in boredom. Before we all knew it, our hour was up and to tell the truth, I was disappointed.
As the teachers lined up their students and marched them dutifully back to their classes, several of them stayed behind to ask me about journalism, and about other people I’ve had the honor of interviewing. Some asked about writing screenplays. Others asked me about fiction vs. non-fiction writing. I was very impressed with their knowledge and their contagious enthusiasm. By the time I left the school that day, I was more fired up about what I do. Amazing, isn’t it, how seeing something that’s otherwise mundane through a child’s eyes, polishes it up and puts a sparkly shine on it?
Once again, I felt gratitude for a new experience that pushed me outside my comfort zone. As is always true, I learned more from the experience than those young children did.
When I got back to my office, I carefully rolled up the large poster that the children had made for me, each of them writing something on it about what fires them up about writing and reading. That colorful poster, with haphazard but careful writing, is now at the frame shop where I get all of my most treasured things framed. That poster will be hung alongside the first print editions of each of the books I have written thus far, and a beloved picture of my daddy that’s almost 75 years old.
Oh, and Mr. Smooth? The little doll who asked me early on, “’Sup?” He was one of the ones who stayed behind to chat a little longer. He’s going to “search me up” to see if I’m “rich and famous. “ When he asked me if I’m rich, I told him that I am rich, because I get to do what I love for a living.
“That’s what adults say when they don’t want to tell you the answer, “ Smooth slyly answered. I hate to break it to the little guy, but I was telling him the truth. Hope his bubble didn’t burst when he “searched me up.”
Carole Townsend is a Gwinnett author and freelance writer. She writes about family, from both a humorous and poignant perspective. Her newest book, MAGNOLIAS, SWEET TEA AND EXHAUST (July 2014, Skyhorse Publishing) takes a look at NASCAR from a Southern suburban mom’s perspective. She is currently writing her fourth book. Carole has appeared on local and national news and talk shows, including CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC affiliates. When not writing, she travels throughout the region, speaking to various civic and literary groups, and advocating for the health and well-being of the family, particularly women and children. For more information, visit www.caroletownsend.com.