Color My World

Feb issue of Writer's DigestRecently I was reading the latest issue of Writer’s Digest magazine when I came across an interview with Drew Daywalt, who was featured on the cover. I had not yet heard of him (sorry, Mr. Daywalt) but the image of his two children’s books on the first page of the article caught my eye so I read on. Intrigued, I did a bit of research on him and found that he was also featured on one of my favorite websites, Nerdy Book Club. It didn’t take me long to get the 4-1-1 on Drew Daywalt.

By all accounts, Drew Daywalt has had quite a varied career, even at the current age of only 46. He graduated from Emerson College with a double major in screenwriting and children’s lit, leaving the door wide-open as to future plans. He headed to Hollywood with a friend after graduation, using his screenwriting degree to work for the likes of Disney, Universal, Quinton Tarantino, and Jerry Bruckheimer, a charmed life for sure. In 2003, with his wife pregnant with their first child, he sat down at his desk to write a children’s book. His goal was to write something that his kids could read some day, because his work so far had been in horror films, certainly not bedtime-reading material, even in Hollywood.

As he surveyed his desktop of the grown-up tools of a writer, he spotted a box of crayons, which he dumped out on his desk. His creative wheels started to turn and from that box of well-used crayons came the 2013 book The Day the Crayons Quit, illustrated by celebrated artist and Emmy winner Oliver Jeffers. Daywalt’s first venture in children’s literature remained on the New York Times bestseller for two years, and was followed by the sequel, The Day the Crayons Came Home, published in August of 2015 to critical acclaim as well.

Drew Daywalt interviewI haven’t read Daywalt’s books, although they are currently on order from Amazon, but from reading about them, I am intrigued. The first book is a series of letters from the individual crayons to an unseen little boy named Duncan. Apparently, each crayon has a beef with its owner. It’s this use of personification that interests me, that each crayon has written the boy with complaints about his use (or non-use) of them.

markers and colored pencilsI also have boxes of crayons, markers, and colored pencils at my disposal. In 7th and 8th grade language arts, we normally express ourselves in essays about the literature we are reading. However, after studying Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, I realized the value in allowing students the opportunity to express themselves in a more artistic way, with the creation of posters or brochures to accompany oral presentations.

box of crayonsIt was only a small step from thinking of the crayons as individuals quitting their job for a variety of different reasons to considering my middle school students as a box of crayons. John Mayer said once in an interview that he considered himself a box of 64-crayons, although a few were missing. I’m not 100% clear on what he meant by this but I like the visual image his quote calls to mind. We are all individuals, each one of us unique and one-of-a-kind, yet we have many of the same facets of others mixed in to our unique blend. And, to extend the metaphor a bit more, we do all have to live together in one box, like it or not.

box of chocolatesIn the 1994 film Forrest Gump, the lead character, played by Tom Hanks, says “Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” Sometimes I think of my classroom full of students as a box of chocolates, the assorted ones that come without the labels on the lid of the box to tell you what is inside of each one.

As the school year begins, you have no idea what is inside each chocolate, but slowly, through class discussions, graded work, creative writing, field trips, and after-school activities, you get to know each student as an individual. Each one has strengths and weaknesses. Some have well-developed senses of humor and a firm handle on irony and sarcasm while others are more literal and sensitive. Some feel more at home in a math or science classroom and can’t match my enthusiasm for reading or writing about literature. A few students each year remind me of myself at that age, a book at the ready in case there is any down time in the school day or the opportunity to escape back into the story they are half-way through. Some are fledgling writers while others have already found their voice and are well on their way to being able to write coherent and pertinent analytical essays. word cloud of favorite subjectMany list “recess” as their favorite subject, followed by PE as a close second. My school is very sports-oriented and as a result I have had to step up my game and learn some sports lingo to better communicate with them. I now have, with the help of my husband, some sports analogies that help with grammar rules as well as classroom discussions about characterization and plot. While talking about sports is not my strong suit, I am okay with them knowing that they have the upper hand in this area. It evens the playing field a bit.

Since my school is a traditional co-ed K-8 Catholic school, I also observe daily the many differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls, not the least of which is the differences in their maturity levels. It is interesting to see how even when we end up in the same place, with the same answer as to the dominant theme of this work or that, the approach the boys and girls take is quite different. I have girls who are quiet and reticent to participate in class discussions but I also have girls who are strong and confident, not concerned with what the boys may think about their comments in the class discussions. The same goes for the boys, a fair mixture of those who avoid contact when I am looking for an answer as well as those ready to debate anything and everything at the drop of a hat.

crayonsWhether I use the box of crayons or the box of chocolates as my metaphor, my days are segmented into 40-minute periods with a revolving door of unique individuals coming and going. It is my job to find out what is inside each one, much like the assorted chocolates, peel back the wrapper a bit and figure out how best to reach and teach that individual. With 18-23 in each of my six classes, that seems next to impossible. But, to the contrary, I am energized by it and, even now, in my ninth year of teaching, I can honestly say I absolutely love teaching. school bellAt the end of each school day, I am most often content with my work for the day, even if it meant I was successful with making a substantial connection with only a few that day. Each day starts anew, and at 8:20 each morning, I start with a clean slate and a new lesson plan, albeit the same goal: to share with them my love of literature and the importance of reading and writing well.

 

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What’s It Like Being the Mother of the Pied Piper

After graduation, I decided to stay in the town where I had lived and attended college for four years. I started working for a Kelly Girls temp agency and eventually landed a full-time position as a receptionist at a busy downtown law firm. At the end of the summer, my younger brother, Tommy, moved into his freshman dorm on the same campus where I had lived and thrived and flourished for four years. I knew nearly everyone on campus, both in the faculty as well as the student body. I was a member of a popular sorority, had run (unsuccessfully) for student government president, and was active in several on-campus clubs. I belonged to a service organization and attended weekly Mass in the on-campus chapel. Yet, within a few short weeks of the start of the new school year, I was being asked, “Are you Tommy Blanchard’s sister?” In a very short span of time, he cut a wide swath through the campus and made a lot of friends. He pledged a popular fraternity and it seemed that everywhere I went, people already knew him, and loved him.

Maddie and Mom first day of subbing Oct 16Fast forward nearly forty years, and I am experiencing this same sweet but still disconcerting situation. On October 16, 2015, my younger daughter, 23-years old and one year out of college, started substitute teaching at my school, the school where I began my own teaching career in the fall of 2007. She had completed the paperwork and background check only the week before she got the first call for a job: PE, not one of the strongest subjects for the Ardillo girls (myself included). Maddie teaching PENonetheless, she rode into school with me and we posed for a picture of our first day teaching together, both in the requisite dress code of the day, “Jersey Day”. When my homeroom came in at the end of 5th period to drop off their bags to go out to recess, they were all shouting at once, “Your daughter is the BEST!” I’m pretty sure she had never gotten that experience out of a PE class where she was the student!

A week later, she was called in to sub for social studies, much more in her bailiwick. The next day, when my 7th grade classes came in for literature, my own lesson plan was diverted for several minutes while they told me how great my daughter is and how much fun social studies was with her. Another day, another subject, she subbed for the other language arts teacher, her real strong suit, where she got to read and discuss passages from a Neil Gaiman book. On to 7th and 8th grade religion classes on another day and 6th-8th grade science on yet another. She received thumbs up from every single student who talked to me about her; even students who are quiet and passive in my own classroom were enthusiastic about their experience with her.

My birthday 2015Although she wasn’t crazy about babysitting when she was a teenager, she occasionally did take jobs to help out my friends and sometimes to cover for her sister when she had overlapping social activities. The response was always the same when I spoke to the families after, the kids all loved Maddie.

Leading retreat Nov 2014Last November, my principal hired her to lead the annual 8th grade overnight retreat. She took the assignment very seriously, writing up her talks and finding just the right music to play while students journaled after each talk. She developed bios and reflections about three saints and created prayer cards of the three saints for each of the 8th graders. In her own unique way, she was able to bring together a gaggle of rowdy teens to sit quietly and listen to spiritual reflections and talks about living your faith as a teenager and young adult. For days after the retreat, the 8th graders continued to talk about her and the impact she made on them in just a little over 24 hours.

Maddieinhospital (2)

Maddie being tenderly held by her big sister, with Grandma Margaret and Dad close at hand

A few weeks ago, at our annual fall parent/teacher conferences, one mom began the conference saying how much her daughter talked about Ms. Ardillo and what a great teacher she was. The mom, confused, said that this student’s older sister had had me for two years already so they were all familiar with Ms. Ardillo. Her daughter then said, “No, Mom, not Mrs. Ardillo, MS. ARDILLO, her daughter.” We had a good laugh about it, and I pondered at the likelihood that this parent/teacher conference was more about her daughter as my daughter’s student instead of her daughter as my student!

Maddie on guitarMaddie really is the good-natured and compassionate version of the Pied Piper. Instead of a magic pipe flute, she is a self-taught guitar and piano player, singer, and songwriter, and whenever she begins to play, people flock about her. Having written the music and lyrics for a musical while still in high school, she workshopped it at my school’s annual arts festival one year. It was a huge success and one of the students involved is now a high school senior, still acting and singing on stage. I saw him recently in a production of Les Misérables. After the show I was congratulating his mother on his performance and she said his real love of musical theatre all began with that arts festival workshop with Maddie.

MaddieatKennedyCenter (2)So, what makes her so special? I have given this a lot of thought, and as I explained to the mom at the parent/teacher conference, I truly believe it all boils down to one personality trait: her complete and total acceptance of a person at face value. She does not judge, she does not criticize, she does not compare. She takes each new friend as they are, and looks for the best of them, and that is what she reacts to. And, after all, isn’t this what people really want? To be accepted as they are? To be given a chance? To have their negative traits and personal flaws overlooked in lieu of their goodness and strengths? And, that is what Maddie does with each and every new person she encounters. This is certainly a special gift and grace from God, because I know that it is not one of my strengths. Her father and I try to be good people and we try to be the best we can be, but Maddie did not fully inherit this from our genes.

Maddie and dogShe has always looked out for the underdog. In second grade she came home and told me she had received a recess detention, and had to spend part of recess indoors with her teacher. The next morning at drop-off, I went in to the school to find out what had happened, as I couldn’t get a clear story from my eight-year-old daughter. The teacher just laughed and said it had all been handled, not to worry. I pressed on and she eventually told me that she “had” to give Maddie a recess detention because she had been involved in a playground altercation, but I hadn’t been called because she was trying to do the right thing. Her friend was being bullied by a boy, so she pushed him down and sat on him until he apologized. He ran inside crying to tell the teacher what Maddie had done. The bullying stopped, her friend recovered, and Maddie had a brief time-out with the teacher straightening the bookshelves, a job she surely must have loved, given her love of books even at that young age.

After a long day of teaching Nov 6We worried when she went off to college, living on her own four and half hours away, that she would be taken advantage of because of her good-hearted nature and accepting personality. We needn’t have worried; however, she survived her four years just fine, making friends left and right, not only on her own campus, but also on her sister’s campus ten blocks away and all over downtown Pittsburgh.

Maddie birthday 2015In a few months, Maddie is planning to move to California, to put her screenwriting degree to work and to pursue her dream job of writing for film and television. We will worry again, and we will miss her greatly. We enjoyed her return home to live with us after college (empty nesting is not all what it is cracked up to be), and we enjoy cooking together and watching our favorite TV shows. But, for as much as she is known for her very special people skills, she is a very talented writer who deserves to see her words on the big screen or on our television sets at home. pied piperAs she leaves all that is familiar to her, and heads off to the land of perpetual sunshine, I don’t worry about her being lonely or homesick for long. All she will need to do is don her Pied Piper persona and she will once again find herself the loved and cherished friend of many. Play on, Pied Piper, play on!