One of my favorite memories of my time in Illinois is of an annual tradition I began when I was superintendent of the schools in River Forest, a Chicago suburb.
Two classes of students came at a time. The children sat on the carpet, while my staff and I served them hot cocoa and sugar cookies. I pulled up a rocking chair in front of the fireplace and opened my traditional read-aloud book, The West Texas Chili Monster by Judy Cox and illustrated by John O’Brian.
The children loved the bright green monster on the front cover. The story’s setting on a ranch in West Texas gave me the opportunity to talk about my childhood and where I came from. The children were always eager to jump in and share a bit of their families’ histories.
Like so many good Texas stories, this one featured the threat of a catastrophe, the drama of losing the ranch only to have Big Green Space Monster show up to save the day. The minute I turned the last page of the book, a dozen hands would shoot into the air, every student more eager than the last to ask their burning questions.
On one occasion I asked, “Children, does anyone have another question before we take a tour of the building and meet the people who work here?” A particularly energetic little boy raised his hand so high it lifted his bottom off the floor. “I do! I do!” he said. As I nodded for him to proceed, he blurted out, “My dad wants to know why you sound like George Bush!”
A river of thoughts ran through my head, bumping into one another. I don’t sound like George Bush, do I? I haven’t lived in Texas for more than thirty years. On the other hand, I probably do…. Time for a lesson.
I walked over to a framed Texas Sesquicentennial poster on the wall and pointed to a small map of Texas. “Here’s where I grew up in Texas.” I pointed to Seminole, a small town about thirty miles east of New Mexico. “George Bush grew up in Midland, just sixty miles down here,” I pointed again.
“People who grow up in the same area often sound alike depending on where their families are from and….”
And the children began to tell their own stories about how their grandparents and cousins from other parts of the country talked, and where they came from, and why all that is special to them.
It was beautiful.
I was so fortunate to have positive interactions with my students during my tenure in River Forest. I remember how important my 2nd grade teacher, Miss Talbert, was for me when I was struggling with my father’s illness. The memory of painting irises with her on one particularly difficult afternoon has been comforting and inspiring to me throughout my life. So much so that I’ve included my black iris painting from 2nd grade in my memoir, Where the Water Meets the Sand.
I appreciate how big of an impact the small moments can have in the lives of children.