Saturday, October 28, 2017

Be the Oxygen

The Wild Bird tour ended in North Dakota this week with me wrapped in a Native-made honor quilt at Turtle Mountain Community School on the Chippewa Reservation. 

It's hard to describe the emotional impact the kids there had on me.

I have never been hugged by so many middle schoolers in my life.

That was after my assembly with them. Before it, they just sat on the bleachers and stared at me in the way all middle schoolers do - with a combination of skepticism, boredom, and tightly masked curiosity. 

The truth is, I was a little anxious about going to the Turtle Mountain Reservation. As someone from "outside," I didn't want my visit or intentions to be misinterpreted or misunderstood. I was there to do what I do at all schools I visit - get kids fired up about living their best lives; about learning to take whatever life throws at them and harnessing it in a way that'll make them stronger, better, happier.

The day started out with a tour of the middle school, which was once the reservation's high school. The hallways are painted with vibrant scenes depicting Chippewa legends, and every mural has a plaque explaining the scene. At each hallway turn there is a new scene reminding students of their heritage. I took pictures of all the murals and legends so I could take my time studying them on my flight home. 

My tour of the school included stops in classrooms that had projects and decorations based on two of my other books - Flipped and The Running Dream - titles that were studied before my visit and Wild Bird's release. I saw very creative "prosthetic legs" made out of duct tape, cardboard, pipes and such, and doors decorated with trees and chicks and typography art. 

I also got time with the book club students who had written me last year - the ones who put this whole visit in motion. These kids are now high school students, but got permission to attend the assembly and a special luncheon because of their role in my visit. They each received a copy of Runaway, courtesy of a middle school librarian in Oklahoma who wanted to contribute to the occasion and open up communication between schools. (Yes, awesome.)

But my favorite parts of the school day were the moments right before and right after the assembly (those hugs!). 

To begin the assembly, the student body was addressed by the leader of the Northern Lights drum group. He explained that the drum group was there to play an honor song - something that would signify respect that I had traveled such a long distance to come to their community. 

I was not expecting to get teary eyed during their performance, but I did. There were no words to their song, just rhythm building and ebbing along with vocalizations, which created a powerful surge of emotions. It was spellbinding and moving and powerful.

And then I had to pull myself together and talk to the kids. 

I don't "pitch the book" when I do school visits. I tell stories. And I do it in a way that keeps in mind what it was like to sit on a hard bench for nearly an hour while some adult talks at you. I try to forget that there are adults in the room, and just go for it, striding back and forth, jumping around, using funny voices, acting more than just a little crazy. 

My philosophy is that if students are engaged and like the story, they will get the message behind it, and that message will stick. I have different stories for all my books, and some books have several. The one I like the best about Wild Bird (which is the story of an at-risk girl sent to a desert therapy camp) has to do with starting a fire with just friction. 

In all the camping and backpacking I've done in my life (and that's been a lot), I'd never started a fire with just friction. Since this is something Wren (the protagonist in Wild Bird) must do, well, I had to do it too so I could write those scenes authentically. 

Like Wren, I used the bow-drill method. Like Wren, I discovered it takes a lot of effort/energy to start a fire with friction. Your arm gets tired, you break out in a sweat, and when you finally have a tiny coal, there's no guarantee you'll be able to transfer the coal successfully and coax it into a flame.

So I tell the kids (in a very animated way) how I had three false starts at getting the coal into the "nest" of dry grass (which is supposed to ignite and light the kindling that's inside the wood structure you've built to create your fire).

On the fourth try, I tell them, it hits me that Oh, yeah, oxygen. Fires need oxygen. 

So I huff and I puff on the little coal inside my nest and I can see sparks taking hold. I can see smoke rising. And as I'm doing this, it hits me that this is a metaphor for life. And that it's also just like being in middle school. 


When we're young, just starting out, just figuring out who we are and what we want, little sparks happen inside us. And what we need is to find people who, instead of stomping out the spark, are willing to add oxygen to it; people who will help us turn our sparks into flames that burn long and hot and bright. 

We need to be the oxygen for each other.

We need to feed the sparks.

From the hugs I got after the assembly, I think the kids heard me.

I know I heard them, too.