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Crying At Career Day

 Crying at Career Day

Want to get the attention of a room full of 9-year-old kids? Whip out rad Star Wars toys and exclusive Skylanders figures from a bag, and then tell ’em you get all of that (and a whole lot more) sent to you all the time, and for free. Boom, all eyes up front.

Want another tip for holding 25 3rd graders in rapt attention? Make yourself smaller and listen to them. Like, really listen and give a shit about what they are saying. Respect them, their words, their thoughts and give them however much time they need to eek out their sentences. Screw deadlines, the ticking of the big round analog clock, and whatever else you have planned.

This is how, in a nutshell, the five career day presentations I gave late last year went. And it was glorious.

*****

In previous years, I’d joked about showing up at 1st grade career day with a pile of laundry to teach the kids how to properly fold shit. Because that’s my career, at least a piece of it, and it’s important to be neat & tidy, tidy & neat. But I didn’t because the joke is better than the reality. And because my wife is always putting the kibosh on my dumbest ideas. She’s smart like that.

In December, I did finally speak at career day, for the 3rd grade. I couldn’t get in front of my girls’ 5th or 2nd grade classes because those were happening in the afternoon and I was yanking my pair out of school at lunchtime to zoom up to NYC for a movie screening thing. I gave five 30 minute presentations to uniformed 8 and 9 year-olds who were being ushered from classroom to classroom, listening to prepared talks about the careers of pilots, nurses, and tennis coaches. I was the ‘writer,’ the guy with toys and video games, who was being paid a good wage to leave in a bit for New York City to see a kid’s movie a month before it arrived in theaters. It’s a good sounding story. Hell, it IS a good story.

My PBS writing gig is what ultimately pushed me to sign up for career day this school year, figuring I had a regular assignment most kids would actually have context for, and hell, maybe some would even have tried out my PBS Parents learning activities at home with their adults. If all else failed, I’d just tell them that I am Captain Huggy Face from Word Girl and they’d all laugh hysterically. When it doubt, make ’em laugh, as the great Donald O’Connor sang.

In the days leading up to career day, I attempted to prepare, to write things down, to gather my thoughts and hone my talking points. The Mrs. was encouraging such prep, but at 10pm on the night before career day, I deleted the Word.doc and scrapped the planning plan. This career wasn’t planned and I think better on my feet than I do read from a card or point at a Powerpoint. All I needed was to not curse while I improvised five presentations for 8-9 year old kids. I could do that. My wife thought this another dumb idea but I stood strong and walked into school with a bag of cool shit and a starting point in my head. From there, we’d just have to see where it’d go.

Where it went, was into the minds and journals of those amazing kids. I talked for 5-10 minutes at the top, explaining how I never liked to write and couldn’t tell a story with any flair but that I kept trying to get better, had support of a loving partner who believed in me, and was kind at every turn and grateful for any opportunities I received. And now, as a writer, I find new ways to explain normal things that happen, and used this example to demonstrate my growth as a storyteller.

Me at the start of my ‘career,’ describing a day out when my oldest daughter got hurt at the playground:

We were excited to go to the playground but the fun didn’t last long when the Bear slipped from the monkey bars and twisted her ankle.

Okay, we can maybe see that and feel empathy for her. But I explained to the kids that this is how I would tell that same story now:

The real story starts the day before the ankle got itself twisted, on a rainy Tuesday, the kind of day that feels like prison, all trapped together for hours, bored, getting on each others nerves, unable to be outside because of the torrential downpour. When we woke the next day, the sun had returned and everyone burst out the door, piled into the car and drove the short distance to the local playground. The electric blue paint of the monkey bars was glimmering in the early morning sun, with droplets of yesterday’s rain still dangling precariously from each bar. The wood pellets that form the surface of the playground and constantly get stuck in our sandals and flip lops were a shade darker than their usual beige, and were pounded flat from the heavy soaking they’d received the day before (at this point I banged on one of the kid’s desks to illustrate the rain beating down the wood chips). The Bear flew over to the monkey bars, ignoring the swings and, thankfully, the puddle at the bottom of the slide, and immediately was hanging and swinging, so fast that she didn’t notice how wet the metal bars still were. She lost her grip before the halfway point, falling hard onto the matted down wood 5 feet below. Her ankle took the worst of it, the tears came quickly, and our Wednesday morning at the playground was over before it even began.

I talked to the kids about painting pictures with regular everyday language, about not just telling the story but showing the story to their readers so that they can envision what it looked/felt/smelled like. Each of my career day presentations then naturally morphed into a kind of writing workshop, with the students excitedly telling me about the stories they are working on — kids, in case you aren’t aware, are pretty damn brilliant! — and me listening intently to every one of them, applauding their young mastery of narrative arc (something I didn’t learn until age 35 or so, I told them honestly). I encouraging them to keep going and to keep exploring those characters and scenes, to keep painting more and more vibrant pictures with their words. I asked probing questions about the room one girl mentioned in her story, a hidden room in the desert — what did it look like, was it a dirt floor, what is tiny and claustrophobic or spacious, how did the main character react to being in there so long? Another 3rd grader made use of hot sauce as a weapon in his story and so I wanted to know what that town smelled like and looked like, with all of that hot sauce being sprayed around. It went on and on, with more wonderfully whacky short stories being read to me with big smiles and joyous eyes.

Those moments with those kids were magical for me, and I can only hope they were equally as special for them.

At the start of the last presentation, one 3rd grader who bravely sat up front, dead center, said “I don’t like writing!” when I announced my career. I sympathized and told him that when I was his age, and even much older, I didn’t like to write either but that you never know how and when you will change and what you’ll find that you enjoy later on in life, adding that it is important to keep an open heart and open mind, so that you can accept and embrace those potential adjustments as they make themselves known.

At the end of that final 30 minutes, after that final impromptu writing workshop, when that class was being told repeatedly to gather their bags to head down to the cafeteria, that they were late for lunch, that same 8-year-old boy said to me, “Mr. Bogle, you made me want to write!” and it was there that I started to cry, happily, in front of their teacher and 24 other big-eyed kids who didn’t want to leave the room for lunch, who seemed to want to stay and talk more about their stories. I’d have liked that very much as well.

Want to get and hold the attention of a room full of 3rd graders? Wear your passion for what you do proudly on your sleeve and start crying at career day.

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