Fan Mail Wednesday #59 (Thursday Edition!)

Check it out, y’all: Fan Mail Wednesday is busting out all over the place, spilling onto Thursday, causing a ruckus. My three kids started school yesterday: Maggie, 3rd grade; Gavin, 5th; and Nick, 11th. And after a long, wonderful, and highly disruptive summer, I’m thrilled to re-enter the routine. As kids in the 70’s, we’d blast “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper on the last day of school. You’d hear that meaty guitar riff and your spirits would soar: freedom! Now as a parent, I want a song that works that same way on the FIRST day of school, as my kids board that bus: a monster guitar hook, a blast of freedom! Somebody please write that song because I want to play it right now.

Oh yeah, the mail. In this rare case, I’m using some full names with permission  . . .

Hi Mr. Preller,

My name is Lester Betor and I am a 5th grade teacher at Slingerlands Elementary School.  You visited my classroom a few years ago on Baseball Day!  We enjoyed your visit.  I just wanted to let you know that a colleague and fellow fifth grade teacher suggested that we begin our school year by reading your book, Along Came Spider.  I just finished reading it and wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed it.  As a fifth grade teacher, I have had a Trey, a Spider, an Ava, and a Ryan in my class.  I also work next door to the library and enjoy our version of Ms. Lobel.  The Slingerlands fifth grade teachers will enjoy reading Along Came Spider as our first read aloud of the school year and trust that it will set a tone of mutual respect, tolerance and kindness.  I also wanted to piggyback on your acknowledgement of Chris Porter.  My son Andrew had Mrs. Porter several years ago and we couldn’t agree more.  Chris is an outstanding teacher and an admirable colleague.  Thanks for sharing your story of Trey and Spider.  We hope it will inspire our students to follow our Slingerlands Motto:  “Always our Best.”

Sincerely, Lester Betor

I replied:

Lester, yes, I do remember you — you had a lot of energy and, as I recall, used an effective poem or technique for getting the kids to quiet down. Does that ring a bell?

It was very kind of you to write.

Baseball Day, yes, I remember lots of caps and jerseys and fresh-faced kids spitting out brownish chunks of chewing tobacco. But perhaps my recollection is not entirely accurate. That was even before I wrote Six Innings and Mighty Casey. I’m always happy to celebrate baseball, though this year, let’s try not to discuss my hapless, unwatchable New York Mets.

I’m proud of Spider. I don’t think it was a great seller — it’s a quiet book, with nary a wizard or vampire in sight, and I suspect that boys don’t immediately gravitate to it — but I’ve always believed that in the hands of a good teacher, it could be a meaningful one in the classroom. I’m grateful whenever teachers and librarians can help a reluctant reader discover this story. It’s a particular honor that you find it worthy for kicking off the school year. Along with Six Innings, Along Came Spider was named by The New York Public Library in its 2008 list of the “100 Best Books for Reading and Sharing.” So thanks for doing exactly that.

You can see the full list by clicking frantically right here. It could be a good resource for future reading.


Lestor wrote back to confirm my hazy memory . . .

Hi James,

When I taught 3rd grade, I used the following to quiet them down:  “Eyes are…watching, ears are…listening, hands are…quiet, feet are…still, lips are…smiling.” You have a good memory. I haven’t used that since I last taught grade three.  Feel free to use my email in your fan mail.  My email was sincere and very accurate.  We loved Spider.  My best to your children with the start of the new school year.

Take care, Lester

Me, again:

Yes, eyes and ears! I’m pretty sure I copied that down and used it in a Jigsaw Jones book, just can’t remember which one! That’s right, I stole it from you. Didn’t you receive the royalty check? Hmmm, probably lost in the mail. Have a great school year, and thanks again for the inspiration.


One comment

  1. Nell Ball says:

    Hi Jim,

    This is my first time checking out your blog. Lots of great stuff! I am enjoying the extra time afforded by a Columbus Day (I know many parents, like you, cringe at a day off of school already, but we teachers love it.) to slow down from the hectic back-to-school pace and do some of the reading and things I want to do, not have to do. Apple picking with the kids is next on the list.

    After reading Lestor Betor’s email you to you, I thought I would share with you my class’s reaction to Along Came Spider. I decided to begin the school year with Along Came Spider as our class read aloud. I thought it would be a good way to engage in conversations about how we want our fifth grade classroom to be. Just last week we read the part where Spider asks Trey to give him some space at school and maybe they could just be friends at home and our read aloud discussion erupted. The kids who were sitting back glassy eyed, who I didn’t think were really listening, but dreaming more about what they would do when the dismissal bell rang in 15 minutes were leaning forward hands waving wanting to share their thoughts about Spider, Trey and Ryan’s actions and reactions. They were so eager to share their stories of how it feels to be left out, made fun of and ignored, and it has been a great springboard for conversations on bullying, respect and doing the right thing. They can’t wait to find out what Spider is going to do.

    I am looking forward to reading Bystander, and I am sure many of my students will go to it after finishing Along Came Spider.

    Take care,

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