News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 27, 2009

The Off Season: Mr. Lunglard’s incomplete education


I had a very interesting week in early November, and I’m happy that I had so many other stories on my writing plate at the time that I’ve waited until now to tell you about it.

My excellent adventure actually started last summer when June Dunbar, who is the Youth Services Coordinator at the Vigo County Public Library, asked me if I’d be interested in speaking to Vigo County schoolchildren about writing. You see, besides handling her job at the library, and filling the tall order of keeping an eye on her husband, Jim, June is on the steering committee of PALS, otherwise known as Partners Advancing Literacy.

PALS formed nearly four years ago, and in its own words, its goal is to “celebrate literacy and lower the relationship, skill and resource barriers that inhibit high levels of literacy.” In my mind, that simply means that these good folks want to make it easier to help local kids learn how to read and write better, and perhaps enjoy it more, too. How could I say no?

So, despite some serious doubts as to whether I was qualified to tackle the job, I said, “OK.” I mean, it’s wasn’t like I hadn’t been in front of students before, and I have done a fair share of writing. Besides, speaking to a few small groups of kids couldn’t be that tough.

By early fall, the plan had changed a little. Instead of speaking at 16 elementary schools, would I be interested in going to the six middle schools in the county and meeting with sixth-graders? By then, June had handed the difficult task of dealing with my temperament to Gail Artis, the Vigo County School Corp.’s curriculum coordinator. Gail told me that some of the groups I’d be speaking to would be more than 250 students.

It was at that point that my arm pits began to moisten and my feet began to chill. How was I going to keep that many sixth-graders entertained for an hour at a time when the topic was writing? I began to have difficulty swallowing food, and I formed images of myself standing before the kids in darkened gymnasiums, my face bathed in sweat as I tried to tap-dance myself through the remaining 51 minutes of an already failed presentation. Some of the kids would be telling their teachers that they’d rather go back to class and work on their algebra, even scrape spilled Jell-O off the cafeteria floor…

I should have known that my imagination, which works well for me as a writer, was out of control as I anticipated my Titanic-like maiden voyage toward public speaking disaster. In reality, I actually ran out of time at each school and the kids were fantastic. They laughed at my stale jokes without cue-card prompts, asked a ton of questions, hurled no vegetables my way, and applauded when I was finished. They were well-mannered and interested and fun. And then, to top it all off, I began, a few weeks later, to receive their letters.

It may sound like a job worse than a root canal to read through a ream of letters from sixth-graders, but I absolutely loved it. Every few days, a manila envelope of them would arrive in the mail, and I would try to read them straight through, grinning and nodding my head the whole time. God bless their teachers for sending them to me.

I’m going to forgive many of the kids for mangling my name — credit card companies and banks and department stores staffed by adults do that all the time — so instead, I put together a highlight reel of the best of the best. In turn, I was Mr. Lungsford, Mr. Lunforb, Mr. Lingford, Mr. Lunsfurd, Mr. Linsford, Mr. Lunslord, Mr. Lingsford, Mr. Lumsford, Mr. Lundsford, Mr. Lunaford, and, my favorite, Mr. Lunglard. I loved it.

The best things in the letters, however, were not misspelled names. I soon discovered that these kids have brains, and they have hopes and dreams, too. As you can imagine, I don’t have the space here to tell you about all of them.

For instance, Mikaela told me that she already had won two writing contests, but she wants to learn all she can to get better. Cole said he loved to read because he got “to explore a different world.” Matthew said he’s never liked reading or writing, but he’s going to try to do both now. Mallory said she loves to read because it’s “so much better than TV and has so much more detail.”

Kaitlyn wrote a nice thank-you note and said I had “refreshed [their] minds.” Katila shared her dream of being a photographer with me; she says she can express her feelings better through pictures. Robbie was very upfront with me; he said that some of his classmates were bored by my little talk, but if I hadn’t come, he would have been “devastated.”

Brandon said my “speech really spoke” to him; James and Laci both said they were happy that I came because they missed math class; Izzy said she has to be in the mood to write; and Jamie-Lynn says she doesn’t like to write too much because it hurts her hand. Desirae said she learned that “reality can be sad, funny, and happy.”

Hadley wanted to give me a cat; Chasidy said that some of my ideas were now “tattooed to [her] brain;” Jazmine said that I reminded her that “a little criticism is good and it helps create better writing.” Uzziah wants me to write a kids’ book; Brieana says I “rock,” and Noah told me he aspires to be an English teacher some day. Caitlynn said I was “breathtaking,” and I just want her to know that she has a great future in a career in sales.

Kristina says she wants to be a chef, but says she’s a “fellow writer,” as well. Sering-Joo [I sure hope I got the name correct], who already knows what a simile is, said, “I hope your new book sells like turkeys on Thanksgiving.” Lane said that, like me, he was a “country boy”; Grace said I “looked like I knew what I was doing;” and Daniel, bless his heart, said that “we [students] should think about our teachers having to grade all of our paragraphs.” Jennifer tells me she writes for a newspaper and loves animals.

Kianna wrote: “I find it quite fascinating when I get indulged in a good book,” and Colton said he was interested in “writing some stories myself.” Capricious says I should come to her school again “just for fun,” and Megan, who wrote a very nice long letter, said, “The thing that you said that stayed with me is ‘don’t write to make others happy; write to make you happy.’” I hope I take my own advice, Megan.

I could go on for a long time and tell you what all of my new friends had to say, but I can’t. I will say that my time in those schools showed me just how incomplete my education is, that I know I have much yet to learn, and that sometimes the very best teachers and writers are about 12 years old.

Before she closed her letter, Cecilia said, “I bet you’re still reading letters, so I won’t bother you anymore.”

Cecilia, it was no bother at all.

Mike Lunsford can be reached at hickory913@aol.com or by mail c/o the Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Mike will be signing his second book, “Sidelines,” at the Pizza Hut Wabash Valley Classic this week. Visit his Web site at www.mikelunsford.com.