One of the occupational hazards of writing for children is the period need to visit schools for interactive sessions. While these can often be inspiring and fulfilling, there are also occasions when they are not. This is the fifth in our series Back to School, and we take you to a different continent. But really, the story sounds very very familiar!
Meera Nair: It’s Not About the Answers
“So you write children’s books?” The security guard asks me.
I’ve arrived at a school in Queens, NY, which is the most diverse part of New York city, which means it’s probably the most diverse place on the planet. At last count there were 168 languages being spoken here, including Tagalog and Armenian.
Inside, I discover, the teachers have cleverly combined their classes and crammed twice the usual number of kids into one classroom.
“They are so excited,” the teacher says, “they even brought prepared questions on index cards.” Yikes. Even before I’ve put my bag down there is a forest of raised hands, all waving so hard that I can feel a distinct breeze on my hot cheeks. Did these tiny third graders sit up all night writing questions on their index cards and how do I get through 35 questions in 40 minutes, and when do I read from my book, and oh my god that little kid in the hijab is sooo cute.
“I’ll take all your questions later,” I say, “after I’ve read a little from this book I wrote,”
Then because I’m a teacher and I’m all about engaging my audience, I plunge in: “But first I’d like you to tell me about one naughty thing you did.”
Every single hand goes up. Obviously, this classroom is a hotbed of naughtiness, the ground zero of bad behavior. But really, how naughty can these beautiful children be?
“I cut the head off of my brother’s stuffed teddy bear.”
“Err… that’s…” I trail off, speechless.
“I was very, very naughty…I, I…” an angelic looking girl in sparkly pink cannot complete her sentence. What has she done that even she can’t bring herself to say it?
“I drew a tiger whose head went whoosh and a shower of confetti came out.” I recognize a fellow writer!
“Confetti?” I say just to make sure, although the image cheers me up no end.
“Okay, shall we read this book?” I say holding it up.
“Who wrote it?” One rather tough looking kid, wants to know.
“Well, I did,” I confess.
“That’s why she’s here!” His partner rolls his eyes, exasperated.
Fortunately for me, the teacher intervenes: “What did we say about respect?”
I start reading.
They laugh on cue. They ooooh on cue. They beg for more, the darlings.
Then, being trained in the art of American consumerism at a very young age, they chorus, where can we buy it, and when I say, Amazon, they nod sagely.
“I can buy it from my iPad,” someone offers.
“I want to read this book now,” some other kid shouts, bless his heart.
Now that the buying part is squared away I move on to the Show and Tell part of the presentation.
I pull up the illustrator, Priya Kurian’s, amazing drawings on the Smartboard. They love the omlette-wrapped car. They think Nidhi, Maya’s nemesis, looks mean. They hunt for the dogs, Rintu and Mintu, in every drawing and yell when they find a tail or an ear.
“My god, Maya’s room is such a mess,” the perfectionist in the front row disapproves.
The portly Principal Veena elicits many ooohs. I explain that she looks so huge because it’s drawn from a kid’s point of view and to small kids all adults look big and intimidating.
A little Nepali kid who is clearly not intimidated by the three adults in the room says, “That dot on her forehead, that’s Indian stuff. My mom is Nepali and my dad is Indian and last year, I think it was last year, maybe this year, no, last year in the summer, oh never mind, I went to Darjeeling. Have you been to Darjeeling? Are you Indian?”
Another boy, noting Principal Veena’s sari says, “She looks so big cause she’s wearing too many layers.”
Then it’s onto the highlight of the morning. What every single kid has been waiting for. I discover they’ve been quite literally sitting on their index cards. On cue, every single kid gently lifts his or her little bum and holds their index cards up. Then it’s Question time. The Rapid Fire Round. Arnab on three cups of coffee. At least that’s what it feels like.
“What inspired you to write this book?”
“Well, when I was your age someone accused me of stealing the bottle of glue and—”
“Did you grow up in India?” It’s not about the answers at all.
“When did you start writing?”
“Why did you start writing?”
“I wrote this book because when I was growing up there were no kids who were like me in the books I read. I wanted to see kids who looked like me, ate my kind of food, had parents like mine—”
“My mother is from Nepal.”
“Can you come back?”
“Can I get your autograph?”
“My mom is from Pakistan.”
“My mom is from Colombia.”
This school is Donald Trump’s worst nightmare, smart immigrants on every black painted chair.
“Can I have your autograph?
“Were you sad or happy when you wrote this book?”
“Please, please answer my question, please please please please please…”
Going back down the steps, I get lost and wander about the brightly lit corridors, until a whole line of kids headed for the exit yells directions at me. Right, left at the exit, another right, until I pop out in front of the beaming security guy. “How was it? Were they good?”