I can tell you the exact moment I became a writer. It was 4th grade, 1964. Miss Carolyn Foley stands at the front of the class wearing that familiar green dress that clings to her stately frame. She holds a picture clipping from a magazine in her hand and moves to the blackboard. Her high heel shoes make clicking sounds on the dark tile floor as we sit there at our school desks in anticipation.
“Today we are going to try something different,” she says, emphasis on the word “different”.
“We are going to write with our imagination. We are going to let our imagination carry our words. You might not know what that means yet but that doesn’t matter. You will find out when you start to write.”
She pins the picture to the bulletin board and steps back like an artist trying to gain perspective.
“Look at this photograph and let your imagination find the words to describe what you see. Write a story about the picture. Don’t worry about your spelling or your grammar at first. You can fix that later. Don’t let it make you lose your train of thought”
She moved away from the bulletin board and beckoned us to leave our seats and look at the photo one row at a time. When it came my turn I stood there for a good 10 minutes staring at the photo or the little pink elephant with the worried look on his face standing in a forest of yellow pencils with their pink erasers thrusting into the deep blue sky. What would I write about? I thought, as I sat back at my desk . By now all my classmates had begun scribbling away on the paper, the distinct sound of lead scraping paper in stereo all around me. Each scrape seemed to sharpen my sense of failure. What were they writing about, I thought for a moment and then I remembered Miss Foley’s words, “let your imagination carry your words.”
Suddenly it came to me: I could just make up a story about the little elephant and how he got to this place. I didn’t have to tell a real story. There was no right answer here. The first sentence lept onto the page before I was conscious of picking up the pencil.
“Once upon a time there was an elephant who had forgotten who he was, because , of course , elephants are very forgetful.”
In the story the elephant thinks he is a person and gets ridiculed by the people around him for the way he looks and the way he continues to break furniture when he sits on it. He is eventually helped by a kind doctor who tells him there is a place he can go to find his stories. The place was called the pencil planet and you go there to write the stories that tell you who you are. The elephant goes to the planet and learns to write with his trunk, creates a land where creatures like him live and has many friends. He gets to live inside the stories he creates and for the first time in this life he is not alone.
All of the students in the class had finished their stories in the 20 minutes before recess. My story was completed a month later. Miss Foley gave me special permission to take it home and make a book out of it. I remember staying up late at night, pacing back and forth in my bathrobe like the young Flaubert musing about my story. “what would happen next. How would I end it? Should there be a sequel? I made carefully colored illustrations and borrowed my mother’s stapler to make the book. When I brought it into class, Miss Foley held it up for all to see and read it slowly with deep emotion. Soon, I had a small cult following in the back of the room. They would ask me when my next book was coming out. What was it going to be about. There was no doubt in my mind now–I was a writer.
Looking back, I realize my story about the elephant was really about me. My parents were 2nd generation immigrant Jews who had spent much of their childhood rejecting the old world values of their parents and moving into mainstream American society. My father had changed his name from Zysblatt to Lane to give it a slightly more anglo sound. He had grown up in great poverty in the tenements of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and ended up taking his family to Dover, New Hampshire on the coat tails of the company he worked for. Being one of the only Jewish children in a public school where Christian religion was openly practiced added to a feeling of alienation. Miss Foley sensed this and asked me to tell the story of Chanukah to the class and make a paper mache dredel from a Dixie cup while all the rest of the class was making Josephs and Marys for the crèche. She knew that writing was not only an academic skill but an essential tool for self-expression. She nurtured our sense of self through our writing and like the elephant in my story, I gained acceptance.
Here is a photo of the young Miss Foley.
Sometimes I hold it up at my writing seminars and ask the teachers who attend to think of their great writing teachers. You know who I mean, the teacher who saw you for who you were , or the teachers who held a high standard and taught with passion and clarity. I tell them one of my favorite stories about Miss Foley. She once wrote a reading grant and bought guitars for every student in her class. The name of the grant was Guitars with Strings Attached and she made the case that reading chords G D A F was decoding. For 28 years she got to school one half hour early and tuned guitars. She taught every student in her class to play the old folk some Tom Dooley on the guitar.
Sometimes I stop at this point in the story and I turn to the room of teachers of all grade levels and subjects. I ask them, “Could you do this in today’s classroom with all the demands placed on teachers from above?” Most of the heads shake no in an almost spring loaded reflex. Only a few veteran teachers in the back give a slight affirmative nod, not wanting to tip their hand. These are the teachers who sit in the back row at staff meetings, that mona Lisa smile planted firmly on their faces whenever new meaningless directives are handed down from above. These are the teachers who will do right for their students no matter what they are told to do from above.
Then I ask the second question. “How many think they could do more than they are doing to bring your passion and your self into the classroom.” Then the nods come almost in unison. Every teacher has a Miss Foley inside, waiting to be born.
I remember 15 years ago when I went back to visit Miss Foley in her house on Silver Street in Dover , New Hampshire. I knew exactly where she lived because we had gone there for a field trip once to look at her bird feeders. We marched over their singing world war 1 songs. “Over hill, over dale, we have hit the dusty trail as those caissons go rolling along….”
Like many people I had passed her house many times over the years on visits to my parents and occasionally I would think about trying to visit but I never did. Now,I walked up the familiar long brick walk way to the front door. I knocked and like magic she appeared. At first I thought she was a lot shorter, then I remembered I was only 4 feet tall in the fourth grade. Her hair had turned gray, and there were more wrinkles but those eyes sparkled with the same passion,.
‘Do you remember me’, I asked. ( perhaps the teacher’s worst nightmare scenario) but she did, “ Barry.” Was the only word she said as we embraced.
Later, I found out that not only did she remember me. She remembered exactly where I sat, “right next to her desk.” As we sat in her living room sipping cranberry juice I tried to tell he what she meant to me. I remembered one morning, near the beginning of the school year , before I wrote Return to the Pencil Planet, that if I could write small enough and faint enough my penmanship might appear neat because the entire page would be blank. I sharpened a few pencils and assumed my medieval scribe writing position hunched over my wooden desk. Miss Foley was making her rounds. I felt her hand gently touch my shoulder and she said, “Barry, what happened to your wonderful, looping letters.” I exhaled deeply and began to write in my normal fashion. Later I would reflect that this was perhaps the only time in school I remember a teacher saying , it’s ok to be like you are already, that you just don’t have to squeeze yourself into a little box to survive.
When I told my story, Miss Foley paused and said, “ Barry I have a confession to make to you. You know how you would see this beautiful handwriting on the blackboard. I would get into school early, draw staff lines across the blackboard and then erase the little lines so the principal would think I had great handwriting too.”
Like all the great ones in education, be they teachers or administrators, Miss Foley did not pass down the anxiety she felt from above to her students. She knew how to create a safe zone for learning. She didn’t follow the curriculum. The curriculum followed her.
Some might argue that we teach to create better workers who can communicate ideas with precision, depth and clarity to their bosses. Other’s might say it’s to succeed on tests that measure student and school success and show the world how smart we are as a nation. Others , like myself, might look at the bigger picture and say we teach to create productive, creative citizens who contribute to this democratic way of life. But as I think about Miss Foley and my story, the Pencil Planet, I think of the Greek God Apollo who proclaimed, “Know thyself.”
We teach to help ourselves and our students find out who they are.