I Am a Pencil A Teacher, His Kids, and Their World of Stories
By SAM SWOPE
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY Copyright © 2004 Sam Swope
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-8050-7334-5
The Box Project * * *
Becoming Mr. Swope
I was a writer, children's books mostly, funny stories in which anything could happen. Every morning I got up at six, fed Mike, my cat, and got to work. I spent a lot of time inside my head with giants and ogres, fairies and talking animals, and when I went out into the city, I was a danger, sometimes so lost in thought I'd cross the street against the light, only snapping to at the blare of a horn. To free my life for writing, I'd pared it down to the essentials: a small Manhattan rental, no kids, no car, not even a TV. I'm not a famous writer now and wasn't then, nor had I published much-nothing in some time. Still, I kept going through the motions, throwing words at the computer, screen after screen of promising beginnings, bits of characters, half thoughts, every day more words; but they never added up to anything, no book had taken shape in much too long, and I had grown discouraged. When Teachers & Writers Collaborative asked me to run a ten-day writing workshop with a third-grade class, I was grateful for the change. And so it was one bright October morning I set out for Queens. The rush-hour subway was crowded, nine-to-fivers cheek by jowl, waiting to be delivered to their particular station of hell. I closed my eyes, blacked out the world, unable to relax until we reached Grand Central, the last stop before Queens, at which point every passenger but me got off. Delighted to be alone, I took a seat, crossed my legs, and opened my copy of the New York Times. The train lurched and slowly rumbled into the tunnel under the East River, where it gradually picked up speed, climbed upward, and flashed into the light of day (a blinding change but welcome), then rattled down the elevated tracks that run through Queens.
Though visible behind me, just across the river, the towers of Manhattan seemed a world away. Queens is different, its buildings only a few stories high, and from the train I had a view both intimate and vast, with fleeting glimpses into windows just across the way, and beyond, a panorama of tarred and shingled rooftops, chimneys, antennae, trees, satellite dishes, phone poles, car washes, small factories, and billboards. Planes flew low not far off, on their way into La Guardia. I reached my stop, got off the train, and clanked down the metal staircase to the street. As soon as I was in the noisy chaos underneath the El, I felt like a tourist. I'd never seen a place like this, so foreign yet without a single ethnic identity, not a Chinatown or a Little Italy but an Immigrant World, a place where everything was all tossed in together: Colombian hairdressers, Indian spice shops, Korean wedding stores, Italian bakeries, storefront mosques, Dominican lawyers, Pakistani candy shops, Chinese green markets, Irish pubs, Mexican groceries, Hindu temples, English-language schools, and restaurants of every description. It was exotic, with a Third World flavor, but nothing felt permanent, as if this were a way station, like the intergalactic bar in Star Wars, a place where travelers stop en route to somewhere else. The blocks surrounding the school were residential, frame houses from the 1920s and brick apartment buildings from the 1950s-no hint from their exteriors what nationalities might live inside. It was a quiet, peaceful neighborhood, here and there a little front-yard garden, several good-sized trees. I didn't see a lot of litter. The school itself was the old-fashioned kind, a looming pile of brick and stone from 1910, back when schools were built to look impressive. I was early, in time to see the grown-ups bring their little ones to school. What a sight! Hand in hand they came from every direction: boys and girls with Cuban dads in baseball caps, bearded Sikhs in turbans, high-heeled Latinas with painted nails, Indonesian women covered in veils, Chinese grandmas in Mao jackets and sneakers, Hindus with red dots on their foreheads. It felt epic, all these immigrants, these hopeful parents who had somehow made their way to Queens and then sought out the school, the purpose of their journey, so that their kids could have a better life.
In children's stories, wanderers find safe haven-for Snow White, a cottage in the woods; for Dorothy, the Emerald City-and when I poked my head in Mrs. Duncan's classroom, I found mine. It seemed a world unto itself, bright with sun, a maple tree outside the window, a place both orderly and purposeful, with eight-year-olds of every color and each one so attentive to their teacher, a woman of nearly fifty and with eyes the color of the sea. She noticed me and smiled, gestured warmly, welcomed me inside. "You must be Mr. Swope," she said. That wasn't true. I wasn't Mr. Swope and never had been. I'd always been just Sam. Yet I made no objection, and so it was I was renamed. At a stroke, rechristened. In a way, reborn-although I didn't know that yet. "Class," said Mrs. Duncan, "this is the special guest I was telling you about. Mr. Swope is a real writer, but not just any kind of writer: he writes stories for children. And he's here to help you write stories, too." The class let out a cheer so loud I was a bit embarrassed, a bit ashamed, and a bit delighted.
"Hi, guys," I said. We gathered at the back of the room, the reading corner. The children sat at my feet while I sat on a chair, like Mother Goose. I read a picture book I'd written, The Araboolies of Liberty Street, about a fantastical family with skin of every color-orange, pink, green, and blue. This fun-loving clan travels from a faraway island to a place where difference and laughter are forbidden. I'd written the book never thinking one day I'd be reading it to real-life Araboolies, but here I was and there they were. When I finished, the children clapped, I blushed, and a boy at my knee said, "I have a question."
"Shoot." "Do you think I'm a boy or a girl?" I was taken aback, didn't know what to say. Wondering what trick he was up to, I stalled, took my time, studied him carefully. "Hmmmmm," I said. He was tall and wore jeans and a T-shirt. His glasses, tied around his neck with a shoelace, were so big they covered half his face. He had a wisp of a mustache, and his black hair was cut short, fuzzy as a baby bird's. I almost called his bluff and said he was a girl, but instead I played it safe and said, "I think you're a ... boy."
"No, I'm a girl." I looked in disbelief, but other kids assured me it was true, Fatma was a girl. "Everyone thinks I'm a boy," said Fatma with a shrug. I felt awful. Trying to repair the damage, I said, "That's just because your hair's so short and because you're so wonderfully tall ..." But my blather didn't fool Fatma. She had my number and turned away, her shoulder like a door shut in my face. When Mrs. Duncan told me later that Fatma was the most advanced writer in the class, it didn't surprise me. Lots of writers begin life as confused, manipulative, or self-destructive children, don't they? I hoped Fatma would forgive me and that we'd be friends. I wanted to welcome her, a fellow writer, to the club. I wanted to let her know that one day everything would be okay.
* * *
Mrs. Duncan lived in the Queens home she'd grown up in, sharing it with her husband, who was also a teacher, and their golden retriever. They had no children. She'd been teaching in the same school for twenty-six years and arrived each morning long before her students to get ready for the day. Like Mary Poppins, Mrs. Duncan ran a tight ship and liked things done spit-spot. Her students hung their coats in an orderly fashion, lined up for lunch according to height, and knew when it was their turn to wash the board or sweep the floor. She gave homework every night and expected the children to be in school every day, on time, prepared to give their very best: "Do I make myself clear? Everybody got that?" Complaining, talking out of turn, and cruelty were not allowed, end of story. "Excuses? I don't even want to hear about it." When her students behaved well, she smiled and gave them stickers, and when they were out of line, she'd summon them to the hallway and lecture them on the importance of doing their duty, living up to their responsibilities, and treating their classmates decently. "Sometimes I feel like such a nag," she said, but she got results, and parents begged her to transfer to the next grade and teach their children again. As far as the kids were concerned, though, the most important thing about Mrs. Duncan was that she was so much fun. "This is a special class," she told me. "Every one of them is smart, well-adjusted, and sweet. Every single one. That doesn't happen anymore."
* * *
Write a Story, Any Story
For my first assignment I said, "Write a story, any story you want. Just make it be your own, not one copied from TV or a book. Make it something unexpected. Surprise me. Have fun!" The kids were eager to please their writer. As they rushed to get out paper and pencils, Miguel raised his hand. He was tall, a bit overweight. There were darkish rings around his eyes, like a raccoon's.
"Um, Mr. Swope? Where do you get your ideas?" "Oh, gosh. That's a hard question. Mostly they just pop into my head from out of the blue." Miguel nodded thoughtfully, but he looked perplexed, so I tried a different tack and said, "Ideas are everywhere. You just have to look for them. Why, I bet you'd even find an idea on the floor if you looked carefully enough." Miguel glanced under his desk, then looked at me: Yeah, right. To prove my point, I showed a sudden interest in the area near his feet. "Hey, what's that?" I said, and made my way through the classroom as the other kids craned their necks, trying to see. When I reached Miguel's desk, I got on my hands and knees and peered into the crack between the floorboards. "Well, what do you know?" I said. "There's a teeny tiny family down there, and they're sitting on a teeny tiny sofa, watching a teeny tiny TV." Noelia joined me. She stuck her eyeball up against the crack and cried, "I see them, Mr. Swope! There's the teeny tiny family!" "See?" I said to Miguel. "Ideas are everywhere." "You can't see ideas."
"Oh, yeah? Then I guess you wouldn't mind if I looked in your ear."
Miguel's eyes popped wide. With a giggle, he shrugged okay, and I peered into his ear like a doctor. "Aha," I said. "Just as I thought. There is an idea inside that head of yours, and it's a doozie." I handed him his pencil and said, "You can do this. Everyone can do this. Just start writing. An idea will come. I promise." I stood beside him, waiting patiently. He squirmed for a moment, then said, "Can I write something, like, autobiographical?" I was impressed he knew this word and said, "That would be great." Miguel got to work. The room was quiet. Everyone was writing. I was amazed at myself. Where had this character called Mr. Swope come from? I hadn't planned him; he'd arrived full-blown, a jack-in-the-box surprise who was part Mister Rogers, part David Letterman, part me. I joined Mrs. Duncan at the back of the room. We stood together and watched the children write their stories, both of us moved by this simple, everyday miracle. "How did you do that?" she said. I hadn't done anything. She said, "I was always taught to have them map their stories out before they begin." "I've never been able to outline," I told her. "I've tried, but it's never worked for me. Most of my ideas come while I'm writing." "I was worried when you set them free like that, to write whatever they want. I was sure most of them would freeze up, not know where to begin." She studied her class for a moment, trying to figure this out, then decided it must be me and said, "You're a Pied Piper." I liked her calling me the piper, but if there was any magic going on, it was a magic that had more to do with books than me, the magic any published writer would bring into a classroom. Still, it was appealing to think there might be truth in what she said. Was it possible I had an undiscovered talent, a gift for inspiring kids to write? Miguel raced up to me, clutching his paper. "Mr. Swope, look at my autobiography!" He was so proud of himself. "Let me see," I said.
In the year 1987 a child was born. His birthday was December 25 and this child grew smart, strong and respectful. When he grew bigger he knew how to multiply. This kid was Miguel. He was born in Ecuador and had a lot of interest in writing, coloring, multiplying. Then one day he wanted to try something new. His cousins asked him Hey Junior. Want to play basketball? I said Sure but please try to call me Miguel. I'm not pushing you, but just try. We went to play basketball until Splash! One cousin fell in quicksand! He was drowning. Then the other fell in. I was the only one left. I couldn't just stand there and look at them drown. So I grabbed them and we washed our selfs. Then we headed to go play basketball. We played basketball for 7 days without coming home but we did buy drinks and food. Then we slept in the basketball stadium for 7 days.
"That's just the first chapter," Miguel explained. I told him he'd done a good job. I said I looked forward to reading more about Miguel. Then I asked him if he was really born on Christmas Day. He looked at me, confused, wondering why I'd ask such a thing. "You wrote here you were born on December twenty-fifth." Miguel read what he'd written. "Oh, that's a mistake," he said, and quickly got out his eraser. I wondered if I'd just learned something about Miguel. Had he made a Freudian slip? Did he subconsciously think of himself as Christ? No sooner did I have these thoughts than they were chased away when Aaron waved his story in my face. "Mr. Swope, is this right?" "What do you mean: Right? There is no right or wrong in stories." "Just read it, Mr. Swope!" Aaron was a tiny kid, the shortest in the class, with soft brown hair and laughing eyes. I liked his handwriting immediately. It was sloppy but passionate and expressive, and even though his punctuation was poor, his grammar bad, and his spelling worse, it wasn't hard to translate what he'd written:
THE SUMMER SANTA
Once upon a time not so long ago, one winter there was a mighty heat.
Excerpted from I Am a Pencil by SAM SWOPE Copyright © 2004 by Sam Swope. Excerpted by permission.
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