How this sixth-grader discovered his spirit animal

November 22, 2017 • Posted in blindness, careers/jobs for people who are blind, memoir writing, questions kids ask, Seeing Eye dogs, visiting schools by

This just in! The Hinsdalean newspaper did a great article on our visit. You can read it here if you want to get another point of view on our class visit.  

Photo of Beth and Whitney in front of class.

Whitney and I spent an entire day last week with sixth-graders at Clarendon Hills Middle School (CHMS). I’ve visited students at hundreds of elementary schools over the years to talk about disability awareness and service dogs, but last Friday marks the first time I’d ever been asked to visit a middle school and talk specifically about memoir-writing: the CHMS sixth-graders are preparing to write their own autobiographies.

Before we arrived, teachers had them read six chapters from my new book Writing Out Loud that demonstrate how autobiography and memoir can communicate a specific theme:

  1. Prologue, in which I explain how it is I decided to write a second memoir
  2. The Brown Envelope, in which I’m asked to lead a memoir-writing class for the City of Chicago’s Department on Aging
  3. My Turn, in which I relate my own family history
  4. Hanni and Beth Hit the Road, in which we start traveling to promote my children’s book Safe & Sound
  5. Mustang Beth, in which I drive a race car 80 mph
  6. Tough Guys, in which a man in first class worries if I was okay sitting between two scary-looking guys on a flight to New Orleans

I arrived in Clarendon Hills prepared to talk about making a memoir come alive, engaging readers, choosing which life episodes to include in your memoir, that sort of thing. What I wasn’t prepared for was how thoughtful and insightful the sixth-grade questions would be after my presentation. Some examples:

  • If someone asked you to sum up your life story in one word, and that word couldn’t be the word “blind,” what would that one word be?
  • How do you picture the modern world?
  • What is your favorite word to use when you’re writing?
  • Was Minerva the only one in your class who took a tape recorder?
  • Do you ever think about what your life would be like if you were an author who could see?
  • Do you think you perceive the world differently because you’re blind?
  • You say you can only see the color black now. If you could pick another color to be able to see all the time, what color would you pick?
  • What was your first thought when you got into the Mustang?
  • What is your favorite chapter in Writing Out Loud?
  • When you were driving the car with Tommy Kendall, was the experience what you thought it would be beforehand?
  • What is your favorite word to use when you’re writing?
  • If you met a kid who was blind, or a kid who knew he’d be blind someday, what advice would you give them?
  • If you could be sighted again for just one hour, what would you want to see?
  • Why did you laugh when that man in first class told you the guys next to you looked scary?
  • Did you write stories when you were little?
  • If the girl you were before you were blind could see the future and found out you would become a famous author, what would she say to you?
  • Has anyone ever judged you for being blind? How about for being a writer?
  • You told us how you learned to use rubber bands and safety pins to keep track of things. You’re a good problem solver, do you ever want to be in a group that invents things for people who need them?
  • How are you able to write about yourself without sounding pretentious?
  • Would you do all these amazing awesome things if you weren’t blind?
  • Did you think that guy in first class was being rude, or being helpful?
  • I don’t have a question, but I have a comment. I keep looking at your dog, and now I know Whitney is my spirit animal.
  • Do you wish you would have not been in the hospital all those months and just saw everything you could instead? I mean, do you wish you just went blind all of a sudden so you didn’t have to be in the hospital all that time?

Whew! What can I say? Those sixth-graders at Clarendon Hills Middle School are wise beyond their years.

Pam Walger On November 22, 2017 at 9:27 am

These kids are great thinkers. People worry that kids are growing up mindless individuals who don’t know how to communicate because of IPhones and computers. They’re wrong. I have hope for the future.

Beth On November 22, 2017 at 9:32 am

Me, too!

Diana On November 22, 2017 at 9:48 am

Loved their questions. Reminds me that often “kids” are much wiser than we give them credit for and capable of accomplishing so much if given support to be themselves.
Loved this post, put a smile on my face and reminded me why I love being around young school age kids.

Beth On November 22, 2017 at 10:37 pm

They are especially fun when you are not required to be around them every day. My hat goes off to the teachers!

paula On November 22, 2017 at 9:49 am

Wow, this post has me in tears—but in a good way. So proud of the kids for their perceptiveness, proud of the teacher who helped them prepare for your visit, and proud of you for your openness that encourages children to question!

Beth On November 22, 2017 at 10:46 pm

I’m no childhood education expert, but maybe the one thing most important to encourage in children is curiosity? And the teachers (there were more than one) sure seem to encourage curiosity at Clarendon Hills Middle School – the questions the kids asked were fabulous.

Sheila A. Donovan On November 22, 2017 at 10:13 am

Those kids are brilliant! Their inquiries are better than some adults would have had.

Anne On November 22, 2017 at 11:33 am

I think these questions and your responses would be very helpful to someone who faced losing his/her sight — and/or to families and friends of those who deal with blindness. (Your next book?).

Beth On November 22, 2017 at 11:18 pm

Anne, as you so often do, you’ve given me food for thought.
I know there are oodles of books already published about adjusting to blindness and coping with blindness, but I haven’t read many of them. The titles seem so, well, excuse the pun dark.
Perhaps the best way to help people adjust to new blindness would be to come out with a book with answers to children’s questions about what it’s like to lose your sight? Maybe even with illustrations done by children?
Dunno.

Susan Tanner On November 22, 2017 at 1:18 pm

I’d love to hear your responses to those kids questions! Great questions.

Beth On November 22, 2017 at 11:12 pm

Susan, you’re on to me! One reason I publish posts with the questions kids ask me is to figure out what sorts of things our blog readers want to know more about. Your interest in the questions these sixth-graders asked gives me ideas of things to focus on in future blog posts.
Plus, it’s just fun to share the questions kids ask me!

Jennifer Fischer On November 22, 2017 at 7:26 pm

Wow Beth. These are so amazing. Thanks for sharing. Your next book could be a collection of the best questions you’ve been asked over the years!! Happy Thanksgiving! Jenny the first!

Mel Theobald On November 22, 2017 at 10:58 pm

I’m all in with Susan. Would love to hear how you answered these kids. And Jennifer echoes my own feelings: What is the topic of next book? I think she is on to something here.

Beth On November 22, 2017 at 11:07 pm

Jenny and Mel, you’re right. Publishing a children’s book with all the questions kids ask at school visits is a very good idea.
So good, in fact, that it’s already been done!
Rats.
The book is called “Do You Remember the Color Blue: The Questions Children Ask about Blindness.” It’s written by a blind woman named Sally Hobart Alexander,
she uses a Seeing Eye dog to get around. Here’s a description From School Library Journal:
“As she has done in past books, Alexander makes blindness clear to readers. Here, she responds to frequently asked questions, including how it feels to be blind and how blind people cope with daily living…Her discussion of remembering colors and dimensions will interest sighted readers. Small black-and-white photos appear throughout;
most are snapshots from the personal collections of the author and her friends.”
I’ve never read this book, maybe if I did I’d find out there’s room for *two* books about the questions kids ask about blindness. I do know this: I am mildly irreverent with some of my answers, but not sure that would make for enough difference to warrant another book with the same theme.
Thanks for the idea, though –keep ‘em coming!

nancyb On November 23, 2017 at 10:47 am

Loved their questions and comments. Do 6th graders know the word pretentious? I guess so! She/he was correct though……..I have read some pretentious memoirs by the famous and not famous. But your work never reflects that attitude. I’m curious what your answer was to that question?
I also agree with the spirit animal comment about Whitney!

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