Wednesday, May 25, 2011

It's Elementary, My Dear

I have officially been an author for just over a year now. While I have been a writer for a long time, being an “author” requires having a published book. My Giraffe Makes Me Laugh came out in April of 2010, and it has been a wild ride ever since.

The most fun I have had with the book so far has been visiting elementary schools. Last September, my wonderfully brilliant wife was brainstorming with a friend and came up with the idea to use the book as a fundraiser for our oldest son’s elementary school. The plan was for me to read the book to the kindergarten and first grade classes, then sell the book to the parents of said children, and make the school millions of dollars. We pitched the idea to the school, and their response was, “We’d LOVE to have you come read your book to the kids. And I guess it would be OK with us if you want to sell it, too.”

I didn’t think they were really grasping what a financial boon this would be to their school, but we were nonetheless very happy that they said yes. Well, we went and did the fundraiser, and I can report with absolute certainty that they knew EXACTLY what kind of financial boon I would be for their school. We raised $38.

They had a jog-a-thon the week before that raised $10,000.

You’re welcome!

Wild financial successes aside, I had a very eye-opening experience when I read to the first class. I discovered that there is nothing I like better than reading to 6-year-olds, and teaching them things. Prior to the fundraiser, we figured I’d better have something up my sleeve besides just the book, because reading it only takes about five minutes. I sat down and came up with some fun facts about each one of the ten African animals in the book. The “reading” consisted of five minutes with the book and twenty-five minutes of crazy antics and funny noises as the kids learned how strong monkeys are, how hippos floss their teeth and what porcupine quills are made of.

It was such a success in terms of the children’s and teacher’s reactions to the presentation that the head of the school district’s libraries asked me to visit the rest of the elementary schools in our town. Over the last year, I have read my book to 14 local elementary schools.

I have visited 71 kindergarten and first-grade classes and read to about 1420 kids. I bring a little stuffed animal giraffe that I toss to the kid who gets to pick the next animal we talk about. Since there are ten animals in the book, just over 700 different kids have handled that little stuffed giraffe. I should probably burn it now.

Before we go any farther, we need to be clear about something. When I said that there is nothing I like better than reading to 6-year-olds, and teaching them things, please don’t mistake that for a desire to become a kindergarten teacher. That is not going to happen. I am not tough enough, mentally or physically. I have a better shot at becoming a Navy SEAL.

All I can say after this past year, is God bless every single elementary school teacher in this world. I have no idea how they do it! They have to spend all day with them! I was wiped out after the first class I read to. By the end of the first morning of reading to five classes, I was so mentally exhausted, I could barely remember how to drive when I finally found my car in the parking lot.

And I now know for a fact that women are 100% mentally tougher than men, because of the 71 classes I visited, 70 of them had female teachers. Every one of those ladies was in complete control, and the one male teacher I met looked as frazzled as I was. We owe elementary school teachers a huge debt of gratitude, because without them, hoards of 6 and 7-year-olds would be unleashed upon the world to constantly ask us, “Why?” during the middle of the day. They are our first, last, and only line of defense.

Actually, one thing that I immediately liked about my time in the classrooms was the random comments from the children. Here are some of the highlights:

From a first-grader in the front row during the hippo facts – “You have lots of fillings in your teeth.” – Yes I do, son. Remember to floss, kids.

From a boy in a kindergarten class during the jackal facts – “I rode a jackal once.”
Same kid, when I was discussing deer during the antelope facts – “I shot a deer once. With a bb gun... No one was around, though. It was at night.” – OK, well, if no one was around, I guess I won’t try to verify your story.

While waiting for some other kids to arrive, I was asking a kindergarten class what they were going to do over the long weekend. One little girl answered, "I'm going to the snow this weekend, because our dog is getting spayed." – Well, sure. That makes sense.

When discussing why elephants flap their ears, I would say, "An elephant's ears are full of..." - Two boys sitting next to each other in one class blurted out, "Vitamins!" "Ear wax!" - (The correct answer is, of course, blood vessels.) - Other popular answers have been air, dirt, hair, bugs, water and noise.

When discussing porcupines, I ask the class if any of them can shoot the hair out of their heads at me. (Leading up to debunking the common myth that porcupines can shoot their quills.) One girl said to me, "You don't have any hair on your head, because you're bald." - Her teacher turned beet red, and I just about fell out of my chair laughing.

I ended the lion facts by adding the little aside, “Did you know that daddy lions are really lazy? They just lay around in the shade all day and the mommy lions do all the work.” – One boy piped up and said, “Yeah. My dad’s lazy, too. He just lies on the couch all day.” – Well, son, not everyone is cut out to be the president.

My favorite random comment of the year was from a first-grader. I was always pressed for time, since my presentation took the full half-hour, and I was usually running between classrooms, so I didn’t have much time to field unscheduled questions. Almost immediately when I entered one of the first-grade classes at Valley View Elementary, one of the student’s hands shot up in the air. He kept his hand up, straining into the air for the entire half-hour, despite his teacher’s protests. When I finished up, I finally said, "OK, what is your question?" – He said, "I have a pet goldfish."

We ended up raising just under $500 for the elementary schools here in town, and over the course of the last year I was able to donate 220 of my books to classrooms, libraries, day cares, preschools, doctor’s offices, dental offices, hospitals, and any kid I could find that just looked like they needed a good book.

Visiting that many schools while holding down a regular job presented a few challenges, but in the end, I wouldn’t have traded it for anything, and I hope I get to keep doing it. I have received quite a few thank-you notes and some amazing 6 and 7-year-old artistic renderings of favorite pages from the book. Every one of them made my day, but in the end, it was one little girl that stole my heart.

I was having a great time all year, and every school I visited was a wonderful experience, but it wasn’t until the second-to-last school of the year that I really figured out why I was there. We had just finished the reading and the fun facts in Mrs. Hungerford’s kindergarten class at Breen Elementary, and after saying our goodbyes, I was gathering my things and preparing to sprint to the next classroom. All the children were still sitting in their places on the floor at the front of the room, and I was almost out the door when one little girl got up off the carpet and ran over to me. She never said a word. She just hugged my leg and then ran back to her seat.

That was payment in full for my efforts all year long.

Thanks, sweetheart, and thanks again to all the Rocklin elementary schools for letting me pursue my dream!

See you soon,

Copyright © 2011 Marc Schmatjen

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  1. Great story and I can identify. I'd almost rather go into an undercover meeting with armed felons than face 1st graders. You do have a great book, glad you are getting a chance to share it with others.

  2. Wonderful! :) We used to say if a child that age has something to say it's going to start with "I..." -- if it doesn't, then it starts with "You..." and what follows is usually not an observation you'll appreciate! :) You sure did go to a lot of classrooms and I know the teachers all loved having you there!! gail