This week, I ask Jenny what she loves about her new book cover, and she asks me a question inspired by Matt de la PeÃ±a’s recent NPR essay, “Sometimes The ‘Tough Teen’ Is Quietly Writing Stories.”
Jenny: When you visit schools, do teachers or librarians ever warn you that particular students may cause trouble, the way Joshua was singled out in Matt’s essay?
Me: It happens sometimes, and it’s always uncomfortable for me.
I know that these educators mean well, and that they want the overall experience to be as valuable as possible for as many of their students as possible, and that minimizing disruptions can go a long way toward that goal.
And teachers do know as well as anyone how a particular student can be expected to behave in school day-in, day-out. But that doesn’t mean that they know how that young person act under other conditions — at home, or when they’re by themselves, or when there’s an author visiting the school.
Matt’s story about Joshua’s hidden side as a writer is a great example of that, and I want to give all students the benefit of the doubt — of my belief that they can be at their best during the time I spend with their class. So, I’d almost rather not know which ones are seen as potential troublemakers. Or at least have those students’ tendencies conveyed to me in a more positive way so that I’m less likely to regard them uncharitably.
Besides, I like to station myself at the door as the students come into the library or classroom or auditorium so that I can smile at them and make eye contact with them. This not only gives me a chance to present myself as someone who is friendly and approachable and trustworthy — which makes for a more engaged audience — but also allows me to form my own (admittedly snap but generally positive) judgments about individual kids.
I do get it wrong sometimes. The kid who, during Q&A, asked me a question about body hair is just one example of a would-be disruptive student who slipped past my radar.
But the worst kind of singling out happens not when it’s me who’s told about a child’s potential for disruption, but rather when it’s the child himself. (And I’ve only ever seen it happen with boys.) I recently witnessed a child get pulled out of line before he even made it into the room where I was going to be presenting — not because this boy had done anything wrong, but because his teacher felt the need to express his expectation that the child would screw up.
Think about how you would feel if you were that boy. A special guest is at the school — a guest whose appearance has been built up and talked up all week long — and right in front of that guest you get publicly reminded of what you’re like when you’re not at your best.
In that particular case, the boy did not immediately reassure the teacher and thus was told that he just couldn’t attend my presentation. Which resulted in the child starting to wail, which resulted in the teacher wisely reconsidering and letting the boy come into the room as long as he sat on the very edge of the crowd, up against a wall.
I made sure I made eye contact with that boy during my presentation. I made sure I smiled at him. During Q&A, I let him ask a question. He was fine.