Sunday, August 18, 2019

Being the Lion Tamer: Why I Love Speaking to Middle Schoolers

Picture an auditorium full of seventh graders.  It is right after lunch.  The room is literally vibrating with barely-controlled energy and noise.

As you take the microphone, there is a brief, breathless moment when everything stops.  All eyes focus skeptically on you—the short, brightly-dressed stranger at the front of the room. You are suddenly aware of the fact that being eaten alive is just as much of a possibility as being an inspiration. It could go either way.

Although it probably sounds crazy—this is the moment I love the most as a middle school speaker.

Facing the sea of unfamiliar faces, I'm instantly transported back to my own adolescence.  I attended Greenbriar Junior High, a public school in a working-class suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where I was just as awkward, impulsive, angry, sad, tender-hearted, idealistic, and totally freaked-out as the middle schoolers in front of me. 

And that’s the place that I always start speaking from.   

I begin with my failed attempts at being published in middle school because who hasn’t experienced the sting of rejection?  I read from some of my truly dreadful middle school poetry because who hasn’t put their heart and soul on paper (or online) at least once? 

Then I plunge into the process of writing for a living.  I’m unafraid to say that some days I hate writing, especially when it takes eight or nine drafts to get something right.  I talk about how much money I make—or don’t make.  And I usually mention my unsuccessful effort to contact Oprah after the publication of my first book—because all of us need to reach for an impossible dream once in a while.

In other words, I try to keep it real when I’m speaking to middle schoolers.  My audience may—or may not—care who I am or what I’ve written.  What they want to know is this: What can I tell them about who they are?

Often I’ll get letters from students after the author visit—or a note slipped into my hand before the school day ends.  The letters will say things like: “Thank you for showing me that it is okay to not fit in and it’s okay to be different.”  Or: “I really liked how you weren’t afraid to laugh with us and talk about your mistakes.”  Or “thank you for showing me that my writing dreams are possible.”

Occasionally I’ll receive a self-published novel from a middle schooler during a visit. (Yes, some of them are secretly writing and publishing their own books!)

For me, that’s the proof that these middle school gigs matter, even though they can be frustrating for authors.   Unlike elementary school visits, it often takes a “village” to pull together an author visit in a middle school.  Lack of PTA funding and staff support, rigid curriculum requirements, and demanding bell schedules can all be major roadblocks to bringing in an author for tweens and teens.

But for schools who make the effort and time commitment— the experience of meeting an author can be a life-changing one for older students. It’s why I focus on them.

Actually, I’ve only been eaten alive once in the past seventeen years and that was by an audience of first and second graders packed into a stifling school gymnasium.  They were so out-of-control, I had to put down the microphone and literally walk out of the room.  

I learned an important lion tamer lesson that day—stick to what you know.