I went to Harlem today to visit a middle school’s eighth grade – PS/MS 161M, Don Pedro Albizu Campos School on 134th and Broadway. It’s right next to City College where I spent a year taking graduate classes in their creative writing masters program. I ran out of money after one year and never went back, but it was a good experience never-the-less. My friend Leslie set it up. She’s an Assistant Principal at the school and, after reading my book, accepted my offer to come in and talk about it with her eighth grade students.
The Library/Media Center was packed with 40 eighth graders, one teacher, and the Librarian/Media Center specialist. They had a smart board ready for me. I laid out my fencing weapons – a foil, a sabre, an épée, and a stage rapier, then talked for twenty minutes, read for twenty minutes and answered questions for ten.
Q&A can be tricky with eighth graders. There can be a lot of silence. These kids were great but I was worried at first as only one girl raised her hand. A boy and another girl seemed to raise their hands but then put them down. Perhaps it was peer pressure or maybe they were just stretching.
I called on the girl with her hand still assertively raised. Thank God she had a question. She opened a notebook she had with her, gazed down what seemed like a list of questions she had prepared, and asked the first of half a dozen that she would try to get to. I don’t remember what her first question was because right after I answered it five hands sprang into the air, then another few right after that. And the questions were good and they kept coming. Here’s a sampling of them:
- How does publishing work? How do you get a book published?
- Did your parents support you in trying to be a writer?
- When did you know that you wanted to be a writer and what made you come to that decision?
- What do you think it takes to be a writer?
- Are you working on anything new?
- Who was helpful to you along the way – like teachers or other people?
- Have you met famous authors since your book was published?
But this was the best. It wasn’t one of their questions. It was their answer to a question that I asked them. “Which would you rather do, take seven years to write a novel or one month? How many say seven years?”
Almost half the room raised their hands. I was in a bit of shock. I didn’t think any would.
“How many say one month?”
The other half raised their hands.
“Of those who said seven years, why did you say that?”
The girl who asked the first question raised her hand. “Because if it takes seven years then when I hand it in, it will be perfect.” Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
“And why one month?”
A boy raised his hand. “If it takes only one month then I’m writing really well, really fast.” Brilliant again.
I left three books with them – one for each class teacher and one for the library. How could I not? And whoever said middle school years were the lost years?