When Fred and I travel, I like to bring books along as gifts for local libraries and schools. In Grenada, we stopped at the Catholic school in the village of Sauteurs one morning. The school is located high on a bluff overlooking the crashing waves of the Atlanic Ocean. Nearby, the Leapers Hill Monument memorializes a group of Carib Indians who, back in the seventeen hundreds, leapt to their deaths off the cliff rather than be captured by the French. (Sauteurs means “leapers.”) A few days earlier, we had met two delightful little students at the monument when we were sightseeing and had promised to visit their school while they both tried to look through my binoculars at once.
I was greeted cordially by the headmaster, who immediately recognizing an educational opportunity, expressed his regret that I hadn’t given them some notice that an author was in town. He was right. I need to get over my some-times-still-shy self and realize that after a lifetime of books and words, I actually to have some useful things to say. Next time I will try to plan ahead. I recalled the time there was a mix-up about which presentation I was to do at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival and I managed to pull off my “Writer’s Toolbox” without the actual toolbox. My little red toolbox is full of silly concrete items which illustrate the basics of good writing. But I got my points across by drawing each item on the board as I spoke. “Well . . .” I responded, “I could talk to a class or two right now . . .”
So next thing I knew, the startled teacher had graciously stepped aside, and I was addressing the first of two groups of ten or eleven year old children. First, I drew a rough map of New York State on the black board, showing how the Genesee River flows north and where I live near its source, our own beautiful Adirondack Mountains in the northeast, New York City in the southeast, and explained that I live in the woods very far away from the city. Then I described each of my books, which they would now find in their library. I had brought along two new red plastic water bottles, complimentary gifts from Island Windjammers and the Diamant on which Fred and I had sailed the previous week. Again, the headmaster showed himself to be quick in seizing educational opportunities for his kids, and asked that I award them as prizes for one child in each group who proved to be a good listener and could answer a question posed by me at the end of my talk.
I drew deer and moose for them, my house, and my little dog George. I condensed my tool box to three main concepts. I talked about the troll who creeps up on our shoulders and whispers that our work is dreadful and should be torn-up and tossed in the trash. Does that troll (inner censor) help us to write? No, of course not! So in he goes to our troll jar—one of a writer’s most necessary tools. Next I drew them a big caterpillar reading a book and we talked about how my pet book worm teaches me the importance of reading for good writing. Just as we cannot exhale without first inhaling, we cannot expect to be able to write without first reading—the more the better! Lastly, I talked about my magic earphones and the importance of reading aloud with a critique partner when revising one’s work.
Awarding the water bottles proved very difficult. They had all hung on my words so carefully that I had to ask several questions, “Which way does the Genesee River flow? What is my little dog’s name? How is a moose different from a deer?” In the end I chose the quickest children. When I asked one little boy his name, I had to smile at his answer. Despite his clearly African, possibly Carib, ancestry, he answered, “Angus.” Did he have a drop or two of wild clansman in him as well? There was an influx of Scottish shipbuilders to Grenada in the past. Here was a bit of history preserved in a name. A third time, the headmaster impressed me by reviewing my three points flawlessly for the kids. I sure wished I’d had a water bottle for him and fifty more for the kids!