An Author Confesses About School Visits

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I was sent this photo after a series of elementary school visits in Hudson, Ohio. The boy’s name is Alex, we had the chance to chat, and I guess he came away inspired to write his own stories. His mother took the shot and passed it along to his teacher, who in turn shared it with me. I post it here with their permission.

The visit was particularly successful because these schools did everything right. I’ve said it a thousand times: “Authors don’t do school visits; schools do author visits.” 

They shared my books with their students. They built up excitement and a sense of anticipation. They thought in advance about questions the students might ask. They created artwork. And they read, enthusiastically. Clearly, the feeling in that school was: “We’re having an author visit! Isn’t this exciting!”

Parents got involved. Volunteers put in hours of work. Teachers carved out time from their challenging schedules. By the time I showed up, all the important work had already been done. I was just the icing on the cake. A real, live author.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve felt a gradual change in myself. School visits can be hard on an author. It’s not easy work. We leave our cushy routine, our home, our family, our kitchen full of snacks. We walk into schools we’ve never seen before and perform, calling upon an entirely different set of skills than we normally employ in our working lives. We’re good at being alone in empty rooms. So we get invited to talk to a sprawled group of 120 second-graders in a crowded cafetorium. Exhausting!

But like all good things in life, the more you put into something, the more you get out of it. Now that I’ve been visiting schools for more than 20 years, I can honestly say that I love these visits more than ever. I get it now; I’m all in.

I’m grateful to be invited, happy to interact with these young people, to talk about reading and writing — to answer questions — to listen — and to share with them my love of books. Because I believe in books, I believe that reading matters. I’m fortunate to have an opportunity to make a difference. 

Maybe if I’m lucky I’ll even inspire a few students along the way. Light a fire. Change a mind. It’s an incredible honor and — yes — it comes with great responsibilities and rewards.

Those kids, those faces. 

Our future.

I’ll confess: I’m cynical by nature. I tend to cringe when a rock star tells an audience that he/she “loves” them. “I love you, Houston!” I mean, come on, can you love 15,000 strangers? I’ve never quite believed it. But today, I’m not so sure.

I ask myself, “Do I love these kids?

And it kind of surprises me to sit here and conclude, “Yes, yes, I think I do.” 

I love what these school visits are all about, particularly the best ones. The visits when a school puts in the time and effort to make the day impactful, meaningful. You see it as the students walk into the room, the way they furtively wave to me in the hallway. I love their youth, their curiosity, their openness and sense of becoming.

It’s not about me. My books are fine, sure, but there are so many other amazing books out there. I’m just trying to open a door. Create some excitement. Share a positive message about literacy. The joy of books, and the value of self-expression. Of having something inside you that has to come out. Your own, unique fingerprint. It’s just an incredible feeling to be a part of that conversation.

To connect with these young people, and maybe, just maybe, to help them see that possibility within themselves. 

To dip their finger in ink. To make a mark.

So if you’ve ever invited me to visit your school, I’m here to say thank you.

Thank you very much.

 

2 comments

  1. Nancy Smith says:

    I can attest through personal experience, that the love came through your shining eyes.

  2. Mr. Preller, I appreciate your kind words about visiting the Hudson Schools in March. We ABSOLUTELY LOVED having you visit Ellsworth Hill that week…two-hour delay and all! The picture of our second grader, Alex, and how his mom (and many other parents) shared that you sparked students’ writing minds is a testament to how you took the time to connect with our students and make writing a “real-life-thing!” Thank you for your work to instill the confidence in our students that they too can be “real writers!”

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