Friday, September 21, 2007

Hooray for Calvin & Hobbes, and E.T.'s Melissa Mathison

You just never know where kids will find inspiration.

You'll understand the first part of the above title when you get to the part about Hamlet's soliloquy and Calvin's yucky dinner. Heh. (Boys!)

The second part of the title comes from something that happened back in the 1980s.

One of my favorite assignments as a newspaper reporter was to interview grade school kids in a remedial reading class. They'd written to Melissa Mathison, the lady who wrote E.T. (a popular space alien movie), and she'd been kind enough to write back, answering their questions one by one. No form letter, this. I hope she'll forgive me for mentioning it, but the letter was obviously typed on a typewriter with some difficulty, with strike-outs and everything. Someone had sat down to answer a letter, and had backed up here and there to take a fresh go at the best answer or put slashes over a typo. Once I got over my surprise, I found the presentation strangely charming, and somehow friendly. Even back then, a typewritten letter (as opposed to printed) was becoming a rarity -- and one that wasn't sanitized into perfection was rarer still. It had personality, that letter. (Do not try this at home. You'll only look sloppy if you're insincere.)

I was sent to interview the kids, who had become schoolyard heroes overnight for having received a letter from a screenwriter of a very popular movie.

They had, before that, been taunted by classmates, who had designated them dummies, mostly by virtue of the fact that they'd been having trouble learning to read. Many of them were children of Mexican farm and factory workers, either migrant workers, or former migrant workers who had decided to settle down and become American citizens. Some of them, the teachers told me, regularly showed up at school in the firm clutches of a resolute grandmother, who had dragged the child to school kicking and screaming. Grandmother was determined the kid was going to learn to read English if it killed him, and otherwise get the best education ever attained by anyone in that family. The kid was tired of the humiliation. The grandmothers, fortunately for the kids, were stronger and didn't give up as easily.

I showed up with a plan to make sure every kid in the classroom got a chance to feel that the reporter had listened to him or her - I did this in all my classroom-related stories, by the way, but in this case I knew I was with kids who might not get another shot at being in the paper, so I was being extra careful not to leave anyone out.

As I was politely giving each child a chance to contribute something if he or she felt like it, one kid in the back exploded with "Can't you hurry?". The teacher tried to shush him with a reminder that it was nice of the newspaper to send the nice reporter lady to their school and it was rude to interrupt, but I was intrigued.

"I'm sorry. I didn't know you had something else planned," I said, fishing.

"We have to get to the library and look up more on Einstein!" another kid exploded. To which sentiment there was much enthusiastic seconding, I might add.

More on Einstein? More on Einstein? Little kids in a class for slow learners thought they were going to die if they didn't get to go do research on a famous physicist? Right now, no less? When faced with choosing between the fame of being in the newspaper and with getting to the library, the potential honor and fame lost? Hands down?

I wrapped up in short order (who am I to argue with miracles?) and the teacher dismissed the kids to go to the library and I had to duck between desks to not get knocked down. Outside, their chaperone kept yelling "Don't run!" but it was a losing battle on her end. The kids would dutifully slow down for a step or two or three or five or six, then shoot off again. All because a patient and considerate writer took the time to explain to a bunch of kids she'd never met that something about E.T.'s looks was based on Alfred Einstein, and from there Einstein had captured their imagination.

I don't know who wound up with that letter. I hope it's framed somewhere, or, better yet, kept lovingly in someone's drawer and brought out now and then for a tender rereading. It set some kids on fire, and in a very good way.

There's something else, too, that's stuck with me all these years. It's a bit hard to explain. It's not just that the kids were suddenly, for perhaps the first time in their lives, excited about learning and passionate about reading. Something about how they held themselves, something about their expressions, made me think about little kids in a wedding party, wearing wonderful, new, stiff, special clothes they weren't used to -- but with these kids it wasn't the clothes.

I remember sitting in my car for a long time trying to pin down what it was about those kids that was so astonishing besides their love of Einstein. I finally decided that what I'd seen was a whole group of kids who were proud of themselves, and not used to it. They were wearing a self-respect that was alien to them. They liked it, but there was no question they weren't used to themselves like that.

You did good, Melissa Mathison. Thanks.

At the time, I thought I'd like to try to track the kids down a decade or two later and see if the fire had stayed lit. But, later, when the decade came around, I found I couldn't do it. Or didn't want to. It would have broken my heart, I decided, if the kids had slid back into thinking of themselves as dummies. I invoked the "don't ask questions you don't want to hear the answers to" rule, and hoped for the best. I still do.

Sometimes, though, I wish I'd followed up. I can't help but think at least a few of the kids from that class kept that fire alive. It would have been a good story.

More to the point, now that I'm older I can't help but wonder if, had there been some falling away, that perhaps I could have done some good by sticking in my own words of encouragement, my own reminder of that day when all that mattered was getting to the library as soon as possible.

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