Last week I was asked something to the effect of what my “contributions” or “accomplishments” were over the last 30 years. I answered in the vague, PR-sounding monologue that comes out when put on the spot like that. After all, who really knows what, or even if, they’ve contributed or accomplished anything at all whatsoever. I can tell you no busy working writer dwells on such things. However, since I’ve been in this mode of we (at Gallopade) don’t change kids lives…we save kids lives, the question lingered in the back of my mind until I realized that the answer could not be measured in a product or a book, an award, or a statistic. Since my answer was supposed to eventually fit into some 25-words-or-less box, I guess that left no room for the truth. The truth, as nearly as I can tell, is a lot more ephemeral, more one on one, fleeting, happenstance (or perhaps just totally meant to happen?), and certainly beyond any plan or my control. Of all the “events” in my writing life, for some reason these 3 staggered into my head later as humbling examples of how we just do what we do, never knowing what it might “contribute” or “accomplish”—indeed, in a perfect world, the ending contribution or accomplishment best comes from those whose lives you might have touched, whether willingly, meaningto or not, or even by “accident.” Who’s to say? Especially in 25-words-or-less.
Well, here goes with story number 1:
In the Army Now..
Fort Bragg Long ago, as a new children’s book author, I was invited to speak at an elementary school on the Fort Bragg military base near Fayetteville, North Carolina. I was a novice at school visits, but learned I had many young fans there and thought it would be nice to do this small thing for our military children. As I recall, when my husband Bob and I got to the first school, the librarian in charge of the event was flustered. She explained that the students on the base had been upset over a forthcoming deployment. She asked me if I would mind trying to visit each of the base’s elementary schools and speak to them that day—so that all the children would get this “author treat” and not be disappointed. After I agreed, she confessed that there were eight schools spread over the base and that it would be a challenge, but that she thought we could get the job done. At that, we were off and running, sometimes literally, up and down hallways, into and out of gymnasiums and cafetoriums, across parking lots, and racing down long, straight, seemingly endless roads through the piney wood forests of the base. All the schools were in on the change of plans and helped by grabbing boxes of books, opening doors, tossing us bottles of water—anything to hasten us on our journey, which, of course had to be completed before the end of the school day. I had rehearsed one “talk.” As I said, I was a novice at this public speaking thing, and a nervous one, at that. The introductions were short and sweet, my first talk enthusiastic and coherent, the questions many, and I wanted to answer them all, not leave any child with a disappointed raised hand. Applause, blow kisses, give a wave, hustle on to the next school. Pretty soon, I could not be certain where we were, or what I’d said or not said. Lunch? Bathroom breaks? Neither! I was in the Army now, and we had a mission, perhaps impossible, but our librarian general was determined and so were we. It didn’t help that the weather came and went in gusty, rain-dashing downbursts, or that we got lost and made a few wrong turns in our haste. The faster the clock moved forward, the speedier we moved. Teachers had students seated and ready. We could do this, couldn’t we? Finally, I had to stop and go potty. (Surely even soldiers go potty?) My voice was cracking, then fading, then all but gone. Still we pressed on, tired, wet, thirsty, hungry. I no longer had any idea what I was saying but the kids didn’t seem to care. They were just thrilled to meet an author, that Carole Marsh had come to THEIR school, and that they had gotten to shake her hand, ask a question, or get an autograph on a book, snippet of notebook paper, or even on a grubby forearm. By the time we reached the last school, we were virtually out of time. School bus motors revved anxiously. The last audience of kids antsily crowded near the exit doors, coats and bookbags piled around them. Teachers gave me pleading, anxious stares. The introduction consisted of a Johnny Carson-style, “Here’s Carole Marsh!” Surely, this last talk was the worst of my life. The principal paced. Parents peered in windows and edged in the door, looking for their children. Drivers gunned their engines in big loud hints to hurry-it-up. My librarian minder had a gritted-teeth grin of encouragement that clearly meant “Talk fast!” I was completely exhausted, bewildered, and near to bursting into tears. (If you think this sounds silly, try this for yourself sometime!) I took a deep breath of fetid school gym air, summoned my dead vocal cords, and screeched at the top of my lungs the last talk I hoped I ever gave. There was no time for questions. The school bell CLLLLAAAANNNNGGGED. All heck broke loose. Still, a few kids dashed to hug me, say thanks, ask a rushed question, or offer up a grubby forearm for an autograph. Trying to hold my exhausted tears back, I glanced up with relief at the grateful faces of the teachers, hurrying to help students exit the building with the least amount of chaos and confusion. The principal gave me a hurried thumbs-up as he raced to guide busses out of the parking lot. When the auditorium had emptied, Bob, the librarian, and I stood motionless and speechless. I could understand why my throat was sore, but not why I was so sore all over, as if I’d just completed an eight-round boxing match. They each took an arm and lead me to the car. We drove back to the first school in silence. In the rain, we found Bob’s car and hauled our books, fliers, and such into the backseat. It was only when the librarian and I exchanged hugs that I realized that she had been as stressed as I, maybe more so. She had promised. She had delivered. So had I , I hoped, I guessed. We were even too tired to exchange smiles. Bob helped her into her car, and we all drove off. Back in town at our motel, I realized that I was still a novice speaker, but much more knowledgeable—and appreciative—of what “It’s all about the kids” means to dedicated educators. No child left behind, indeed. We had a drink, dinner, and went to bed. The next morning, we returned home. On the nightly news that evening, we were stunned to learn that while we’d been returning from Fort Bragg, a “stick” (as Bob says it is called) of soldiers who had jumped from their plane during a routine exercise…had been stuck down by another plane. I later learned that many of the children I had spoken to that day had lost fathers. It was a long time before I heard from the librarian. She wrote: “You were the last good thing that happened to some of those kids that day. Some from every elementary school lost their dads.” I never have understood what to make of that day. But ever since, even when I want to say no or have good reason to, I usually just suck it up and do it. Like any good soldier.