by Earl Staggs
Photos by CAROLE RYAN
After I retired from the insurance business, I discovered I didn’t like staying home all day. I found a part time job driving a school bus. The job only takes up two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, it gets me out of the house every day and keeps me in touch with other members of the human race, and I happen to like kids. Most of them.
I also make new friends among parents and teachers. One teacher, Casey Stapp, became a good friend. Her two sons ride my bus, she read my novel MEMORY OF A MURDER, her father is a writer, and I read his book. Not only that, but when she stops for breakfast in the morning, she often brings me a sausage biscuit.
Casey Stapp and me. Funny. I don’t remember my teachers being this pretty.
So when Casey asked me if I would visit her class and talk about writing, I immediately said yes. Then I remembered something. She teaches Kindergarten!
Now, I love talking about writing. I jump at the chance to meet with a group of readers or writers, make a presentation at a conference or seminar, or appear on a panel. I’d do it on a street corner if I could get the audience to stand still long enough.
But, how in the world would I talk about writing to a room full of five-year-olds?
Believe me, I worried and fretted over doing this. I wanted desperately to make it meaningful and talk to them on their level. Yes, definitely a major challenge.
While I fretted and worried, I learned something interesting. At this particular school, Rockenbaugh Elementary in Southlake, Texas, all grades from Kindergarten to Fourth Grade have a class in creative writing. I’ve long worried about where the next generation of writers will come from. Most young people I know spend their time thumbing meaningless text messages on their phones with no regard for spelling, grammar or creativity. I was astounded and heartened to learn these young people were being schooled in writing. Maybe there’s hope for the future of writing after all.
But back to my challenge.
I knew I had to present the art and craft of writing in such a way that they would understand what I was saying and, at the same time, be entertained. I knew I had to hold their interest for twenty-five minutes, my allotted time. We’re talking about an audience with an attention span of about twenty-five seconds, if that. I knew I needed to make it interactive and get them involved both mentally and physically.
So, with all that in mind, I went at it. I’m not going to repeat the entire presentation here, but here are some of the highlights.
After Mrs. Stapp introduced me, I asked how many rode a bus to school. Nearly every hand went up. “I love my job and I love my bus,” I said. “I’m going to do a cheer for school buses.”
And I did. I raised a fist in the air, made circles with it, and shouted, “Whoop! Whoop! Whoop! for school buses!”
Then I asked them to do it with me. They did, but it was very soft and timid. I told them we needed to do better and asked the teacher if it would be all right if we made some noise. She said yes, so we did it again. We shook the room.
“WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! FOR SCHOOL BUSES!”
They enjoyed it this time.
Next, I told them I was also a writer. I held up my novel, MEMORY OF A MURDER, and pointed to my name on the cover. Then I held up my collection, SHORT STORIES OF EARL STAGGS, and pointed to my name. I did the same with two of the magazines in which my stories appeared and pointed out my name on the covers.
“Do you think,” I asked, “it feels good to see my name on the cover? You bet it does. Let’s do a cheer for books and magazines.”
“WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! FOR BOOKS AND MAGAZINES!”
This time, we shook the entire school. They were getting into it.
“To be a writer and get your name on books and magazines,” I continued, “you have to be a good writer. But being a good writer can help you even if you don’t become a writer. Suppose, when you grow up, you want to work in a bank. One day, your boss tells you to write a report about banks. If you’re a good writer, you will write a good report and your boss will be happy. He may be so happy, he will pay you more money. Let’s do a cheer for more money.”
“WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! FOR MORE MONEY!”
After that cheer, I expected the riot squad to rush in.
I gave them more examples of ways being a good writer could help them as grownups.
“So, being a good writer,” I told them, “can help you no matter what kind of job you do when you grow up. Now let’s talk about how you can learn to be a good writer.”
I talked for several minutes about the importance of school because that’s where we learn all the things we need when we grow up, no matter what kind of job we do. “Without school, we would all be dummies,” I told them.
“WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! FOR SCHOOL!”
Mrs. Stapp winced at the amount of noise we made that time, but she also gave me a smile.
I talked next about learning words and spelling. “To be a good writer or to be good at any kind of job,” I went on, “you have to know a lot of words. Did you know that the more words you know, the smarter you are? That’s right. Read as much as you can and when you come across a word you don’t know, find out what it means and how to spell it. Every time you learn a new word, you get a little bit smarter.”
“WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! FOR WORDS AND SPELLING!’
Then I told them, “To be a good writer, you also have to use something you’re born with. It’s called imagination. That’s a part of your brain where you can pretend and make believe and dream up anything you want to, all by yourself and in your own mind. It’s also where you can come up with ideas for stories to write. Let’s have some fun now. I’ll reach into my imagination and find a story idea that would be fun to write.”
The story idea involved a hero, a princess, a bad wizard, and fire-breathing dragons. I asked for volunteers to play the parts and selected Graham to be the Mighty Warrior and Angel to be the Beautiful Princess. I played the part of Bad Earl, the Terrible Wizard. In our story, the Wizard kidnapped the Beautiful Princess and took her to his castle. The Mighty Warrior had to fight the dragons and rescue her. Everyone in the class was a member of his army, and they had fun shooting their imaginary magic bows and arrows to drive away the dragons. We made a lot of noise playing out our story, but the teacher didn’t mind. At the end, Mighty Warrior Graham had to fight Bad Earl with imaginary swords. He beat me and sent me off to jail.
To end the story, I said, “Then Mighty Warrior Graham takes Beautiful Princess Angel home to her family and they get married.”
That brought loud “Ooohs” and “Ahhhs” from the audience. Graham grimaced and shook his head. He obviously didn’t like the idea of getting married.
“Graham,” I told him, “the good part about making up your own stories is that you can write the ending any way you want. How about instead of getting married, you go to Hollywood where they make all the movies, and you can be the star in a superhero movie?”
Graham liked that idea.
All the kids agreed it would be cool to reach into their imagination, find a story idea like that one, and write it.
To close out my presentation, I thanked Mrs. Stapp for inviting me to come in, and we gave her a cheer.
“WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! FOR MRS. STAPP!”
Then I thanked the class for being a terrific group.
“And remember,” I said, “working hard in school and learning to be a good writer will help you in any job you do when you grow up, even if you don’t become a writer. But, if you do become a writer and someday someone asks you who inspired you to be a writer, tell them Mr. Earl the school bus driver did. That will make me very happy.”
Mrs. Stapp took over at that point and led the class in a cheer for me.
“WHOOP! WHOOP! WHOOP! FOR MR. EARL!”
That, my friends, made me very happy.
Meeting some of the Kindergarteners after it was over.
* * * * *
And that’s how it went when I took on My Kindergarten Challenge. I hope I did okay. What do you think?