From a Frozen Sea

by

Tom Birdseye

This is an article I wrote for The New Advocate (Fall, 1996) that tells how JUST CALL ME STUPID came to be.


It was a spring morning in 1988, and I sat by myself in an elementary school staff lounge in Spokane, Washington. The teachers were already in their classrooms with their kids, no doubt taking attendance and lunch count, or going over the schedule for the day. It would be a busy one for me, I knew. As the visiting author I would be doing assemblies in the gym, then workshops with smaller groups in the library. That and lots of book signing. But for a moment I had the gift of solitude, a bit of quiet in which to collect myself, relax, maybe read the comics.

Then again, maybe not. The staff room door opened and a teacher came in. She plopped down on the couch with a big sigh. The look on her face was hard to read. Was that relieved or upset? She stared at the piece of paper she held in her hand. Perplexed might have better described her. She glanced my way. "You're the writer," she said.

It was a label I still wasn't completely comfortable with -- there is so much in how we define ourselves -- but I nodded yes to keep things simple. The teacher turned the paper my way, and I could see that the handwriting on it was probably her own. "Have I got a story for you," she said.

My eyebrows went up like red flags. I took a deep breath, ready to explain that no matter how good her story was, I was neither an editor nor an agent. I couldn't get it published for her. She would have to go about that the same way I had -- through hard work and perseverance and . . .

But there was something in the teacher's eyes that stopped my oration before I could get out word one. It was a look I understood. She needed to tell me about what she held in her hand. So I listened. There was a new boy in her class, she told me, named Patrick. He had moved to town only a week ago, showing up at her classroom door with no transcripts or records of any kind. His life was written all over him, though: a transient family, single mom, probably on the run from social services.

She had been busy getting kids settled into math, but ushered Patrick into the room and showed him a seat. A quick, informal assessment of where he stood academically seemed in order, so she asked him to read aloud to her from a book she pulled at random off the shelf.

Patrick quietly but firmly refused.

The teacher was surprised, but tried not to show it, and grabbed an easier book.

He refused to read it, too.

A beginner book still got no results. So the teacher dropped reading and tried math . . . then spelling . . . finally a bit of simple writing. Her growing frustration must have begun to show on her face, she said. "In my voice, too, I'm sure." For tears began to show in Patrick's eyes. "I'm stupid!" he told her, angrily wiping the tears away. "I can't do it. Leave me alone!"

So she did.

Later in the day, though, when the teacher was reading aloud to the class -- a fantasy novel about dragons -- she noticed Patrick at his desk, bent over a piece of paper, busily working on something. She wandered back that way as she read, until she could get a clear view. He was drawing an illustration of the dragon in the story. It was beautifully done. He was good -- very good.

She complimented his work. He was embarrassed, and at the same time seemed suspicious of her praise. But by the end of the week he had drawn many pictures of the story, and allowed the teacher to put them up on a bulletin board in the classroom.

On Friday afternoon the class had a free choice time. The teacher was busy at her desk when she noticed that a crowd had gathered around the back table. She went to investigate, and found that Patrick was not only a promising artist, but also a very good at chess. He was trouncing any and all kids who took him on, most of them in a matter of minutes. She made him a blue ribbon and presented it to him privately. For the first time, he smiled.

The following Monday, two days before I showed up, the teacher scheduled a class writing period. Knowing how Patrick had reacted when she tried to get him to write before, this time she offered to take dictation of any story he might want to tell, say, for example, a story like the one they had been reading, with a dragon, or maybe a knight or two.

Patrick was hesitant, but with gentle encouragement finally agreed to think about it. The next day he said he had an idea, but it wasn't ready. He needed to think some more. It wasn't until just that morning that he had agreed to try. The piece of paper she now cradled as she spoke was his story, not her's. She had written it down just as he had dictated it to her.

He had told her the story of a very unusual book. Unlike most, its pages were completely blank. Still, all you had to do was look at one of those blank pages and the words meant to be there would come into your mind. You would know everything that was happening in the story, hear everything that was being said, see and feel it all. It was a magic book, and hidden within its blank pages were knights, dragons and castles. He had smiled as he described it.

Now, in the staff lounge, the teacher said to me: "This story is so good. It cries out for what books have to offer. Patrick wants to read. It's just that every time he looks at the words . . . " She paused. There was great intensity in her eyes and around the corners of her mouth. "He's a smart kid, he just doesn't believe in himself. You're a writer. We need a book about a kid like Patrick."

It was time for me to go to the gym for my first assembly. But as I stood I pulled the notebook I always carry with me from my back pocket. "Thanks for the idea," I said, jotting down a quick note about Patrick and the magic book. "I'll think about it."

Still, I have to admit that what I was giving more thought to was that I was already well into writing a new novel. And I had at least two picture books in progress, too. Not to mention all the work on the house to be done. The last thing in the world I needed was a new project, a "story starter" from someone I don't even know.

That night, though, lying awake in bed, I found myself wondering what had happened in Patrick's life to bring him to such a tragic point. Kids aren't born that way, I thought. They are wounded, then emotional scars form. I had seen so many like Patrick in my ten years of teaching intermediate grades and kindergarten. Too many. It had always affected me deeply. Maybe too deeply. The night lengthened, and I couldn't get Patrick out of my mind.

The next morning I called my mother and asked what it was like for me when I was learning to read. Was there something in my personal history that I'd forgotten about that would explain the tender spot Patrick's struggle touched in me?

"Wwwwwell," my mom said, drawing the word out Kentucky style, "I don't really remember. It was the fifties. Parents didn't ask questions. We just sent our kids off to school. But I still have your report cards and a few other things in a box in the attic. I could send them to you, if that would help."

"Sure, thanks," I said, now eager for any clue.

My report cards arrived tucked neatly into a manilla envelope, arranged top to bottom in chronological order. I opened the one marked grade one with the same feeling I imagined archaeologists must open a tomb. This is the first thing I read:

"Period 1 - Tom is not working up to his capabilities. He could do so much better if he would really make up his mind to settle down." Along with the report card my mother had enclosed a piece of primary paper dated 1957, on which I had written ten times: I talk too much. I talk too much. I talk too much . . .

Well, OK, so I wasn't a perfect student. Who could blame me for conveniently forgetting about all the times I had missed recess and copied statements of guilt off the board? I had been six years old, for crying out loud.

I read on past a few innocuous euphemisms until: "Tom is not as anxious to take home books as he was earlier.

Maybe warm weather has had a lot to do with that."

Warm weather? Disturbing feelings were beginning to come back along with the memories:

Of me sitting in the rear of my first grade classroom with the Yellow Birds reading group. The other six and seven-year-olds in the circle are paying perfect attention as each takes a turn reading aloud from yet another story about Dick and Jane.

I am trying to be good, too, sitting up straight in my chair as I have been reminded to do countless times. I try to calm my fidgety feet, and steady my grip on my basal reader, as if it is a life buoy. Hang on to it tight enough, I have been lead to believe, and you will be pulled safely onto the continent of reading.

But it is hopeless. No matter how hard I try, I can't keep my eyes on the page. My gaze keeps wandering up and over the heads of my classmates toward the door. Like Dick and Jane's dog Spot, I want to run, run, run -- run out of the school, across the playground, and into the familiar comfort of the woods beyond. Because, although I came into first grade excited to learn how to read, it has quickly turned sour on me. Letters, even entire words, keep getting turned around backwards. The sounds we've gone over and over keep getting jumbled, and often, by the time I finally figure out that d-o-g says "dog," I forget what the word was just before it. No matter how many times things are explained, I can't seem to get it right. Nothing has any meaning. It has been so frustrating and confusing.

And so I am with the Yellow Birds, the lowest of the three reading groups, in the rear of the classroom. In more ways than one, my back is to the wall. Word is among the kids that if you can't read by the end of the year, you are flunked and have to repeat first grade. I am petrified, drowning in the sea of stuff called reading.

But, I reminded myself all those years later, I wasn't retained. And I did, after all, become a reader. What happened?

I looked to my second grade report card for clues.

"Tom is an earnest little worker."

That's the first thing Mrs. Grace Bradley had to say about me. It made me smile.

"Tom has so much interesting information to offer to the group."

Hey, wait a minute! I thought I talked too much. "Tom has been a pleasure to teach!" I checked to make sure Mrs. Bradley was talking about the same kid as my first grade teacher. Sure didn't sound like it.

"Tom has made much progress in all areas of school work. He has also gained much confidence in himself."

Then it dawned on me. The reason these two report cards sounded so different was not due to any miraculous change in me over the summer. I had been the same kid, entering second grade no different than I had entered first grade. The difference had been in how I was viewed. By the grace of what I now saw as an incredible stroke of good fortune, I had been promoted into the warm, loving arms of Mrs. Bradley. Who had seen my restlessness as unchanneled earnestness, my chatter as enthusiasm, who had believed in me. With her gentle encouragement my self concept had slowly begun to grow, bringing me to the astonishing feat of READING! On a momentous day in the spring of my second grade year, I had moved from the Yellow Birds to the middle reading group, the Red Birds, away from the back wall, closer to the front of the class, smiling, ecstatic just to be average. A good teacher had made a huge difference in my life.

Just as the teacher in Spokane was trying to do for Patrick. The only difference between my situation and his was that I had been born into an stable, supportive family. And I had had the right teacher come along earlier in my schooling. Otherwise, who could say how I might have turned out? I was lucky, that was all, and could only hope that it was not too late for Patrick.

Or was hope really all I could do? The teacher in Spokane had said, "You're a writer. We need a book about a kid like Patrick."

But that was asking so much -- minimally two years of work, maybe three. Which would take a lot of perseverance. Perseverance can only be maintained though commitment. Commitment is fed by passion. Did I have enough passion for such a story? Without it I would flounder and fail, just as I had as a young writer.

Yes, reading had not been the only trouble spot for me as a kid. I had been a lousy speller and punctuator too, and my handwriting slanted the wrong way. By fifth grade all of my stories had come back with so much red ink on them they looked like they'd been in a car wreck. Not once did I get a comment at the top of the page saying, "Nice job!" or "How creative!" My teachers meant well, of course. I'm sure they thought they were helping me learn by pointing out each and every error I'd made. But I hadn't seen it that way. To me the all the red ink had translated into a message that had rung loud and clear in my mind: "You are not a writer."

It was only years later, and with the help of two Oregon writers who had an instinctive knack for teaching, that I had begun to get writing into perspective. I had learned that although undeniably important, writing mechanics alone don't make a story. After all, who has ever gone running to a friend with a book in hand exclaiming, "You've got to read this one! It's got the most incredible spelling and punctuation I've ever seen!"? Concentrate on the story, the writers told me. It is a journey into the realm of the heart. Keep your eyes fixed on that road, then deal with the other stuff later. Everyone has a story to tell. You can do it. As with Mrs. Bradley, I began to bloom under such wise and gentle instruction. I began to believe in myself as a writer.

Still, even the smallest moment of self-doubt could bring back the voice of my elementary days to haunt me, as if the years gone by and books published proved nothing. Was I to undertake all of the imagining, researching, prewriting, hammering out of a rough draft, then the rewrites, and more rewrites, and more rewrites still? Was I to do all of that on the suggestion of a teacher in Spokane, Washington who had not even told me her name!? Of course I cared about literacy. But an entire novel on it? I wasn't sure enough, and so put the note I had jotted about Patrick and his magic book with the growing pile of others in my desk drawer.

Three years later I was in my office, reading a book a friend in Iowa had sent me titled Shoptalk: Learning to Write With Writers, by Donald Murray. I was on page six, where halfway down I found a simple yet powerful quote from the great Czechoslovakian writer, Franz Kafka: "A book should serve as an axe for the frozen sea within us."

How true, I thought. A single book can make a huge difference in a person's life. It had for me.

Not Dick and Jane in second grade. Despite getting out of the bottom reading group and starting to regain my self-confidence with Mrs. Bradley's wonderful help, the damage done beforehand had still lingered, reading had still remained hard work. I may have been reading, but I still had not become a real reader.

And so my trials had continued -- years of avoiding books, reading only when required, thinking the best stuff written was under the title, "Cliff Notes."

Until December of 1969. A freshman at the University of Kentucky, my first semester just over (no academic triumph by any definition), I had been busy packing for Christmas break, when Skip, that kid from New Jersey who lived on my dorm floor, appeared in my doorway, again.

"Here, try this one," he said, offering yet another in a long line of books for me to read.

I stuffed more dirty laundry in a pillow case and tried to look preoccupied.

Skip smiled wryly. "Come on." He held the book out like he thought it was a plate of brownies. "You can't tell me you've got too much studying to do this time. The semester's over. You'll love this one, I promise!"

I doubted it, but to shut Skip up took the book, glancing only a moment at the cover before tossing it in with the dirty clothes. The Hobbit? Sounded silly.

Still, just so I could honestly tell Skip that I had tried the book, I opened it several days later and read the first page. And in a matter of moments I was swept away on the wings of J.R.R. Tolkein's words. Christmas break flew by as Frodo lead me into one great adventure after another, into one great book after another. How lucky I had been to once again have the right teacher there at the right time, and -- yes, Franz Kafka -- the right book. The Hobbit had become an axe for part of my frozen sea.

Now, sitting in my office, I remembered Patrick, and wondered how he had fared since fifth grade. It sure looked as if the right teacher had come along. But had the right book, the right axe? Or would he ever get hooked by the writings of someone like J.R.R. Tolkien?

I opened my desk drawer and shuffled through the pile of jotted down story ideas. It took a few minutes, but finally I found it, that note I had written about Patrick and the magic book. He had had so much going wrong for him. Was magic his only hope?

I shuddered at the thought. My oldest daughter, Kelsey, had just started school, and was having the same sort of problems I had had with reading. We were doing all we could to help her, and she was trying hard, but what if . . . ?

I got my old report cards back out and reread them. The memories of my struggles seemed stronger than ever, and in many ways more meaningful, especially given the context of the moment. What did it take to really become a reader?

I could feel my interest in exploring the question growing. And knew then that the teacher in Spokane had not given me a "story starter" as I had thought at first. She had no more told me how to be creative than she had flashed a red pen and cautioned me to watch my spelling, mind those commas, or to be sure to indent. Instead, she had bestowed upon me a gift in the form of a reminder: Just as Patrick had ultimately found his voice through writing about what mattered most in his life, so should I. "You're a writer," she had said. "We need a book about a kid like Patrick."

So I finally began the novel Just Call Me Stupid, the story of a fifth grade boy who is convinced that he can't read. And in the process of writing it found that for me Kafka's quote is true in more ways than one. Just as reading a book can serve as an axe, so can writing one. And so can a good teacher, offering possibilities and encouragement, believing in me, as I chip away at my frozen sea.

Bibliography:

Murray, D. (1990) Shoptalk: Learning to Write With Writers.

Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, Heinenmann. Tolkein, J.R.R. (1966)

The Hobbit. New York: Ballentine.

Birdseye, T. (1993) Just Call me Stupid. New York: Holiday House.

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