My afternoon consisted of sharing my message with about 80 elementary school kids at the YMCA Believe and Achieve program. It’s an amazing place, doing some awesome work. Most of these kids are at or below the poverty level, living in homes that often have one working parent, drug or alcohol abuse, incarceration and less than adequate support. Some of these kids come from homes that see parents trying hard to give what they can but often don’t have enough time or money or both to be able to do more. These kids need this program. And today, I needed them.
When I got there, they had just come from school and on a Monday, rambunctious was an understatement. I stood in amazement as I watched the counselors try to quiet them, calm them, anything to get them all turned in one direction and silent. Watching for a few minutes led me to know that this was just going to be the way it would be. And that was perfectly fine with me. SO, I began what I was there to do.
As loudly as I could I asked a simple question. “Are you ready?”
Some responded NO, Some Yes, some just kept on talking to their friends next to them, facing the other way and not having a care in the world.
I smiled, and asked again.
“Are you ready?”
A few more yelled YES this time.
Then, I realized that the only way to get them engaged was to make it a competition. To make it where they won’t want to miss out.
I said a little more quietly now, “If you can hear me clap one time.”
I heard a few random claps, then a few more… you know, those kids who saw the person next to them clap and realized they probably should too. After the fact… a few more clapping.
Then I tried again. A little quieter so they would have to listen carefully if they wanted to know what was going on.
“If you can hear me, clap two times.”
A little better this time.
So I tried again. “If you can hear me clap two times.”
Most of the kids responded.
And I looked around the room to find the ones who still weren’t paying attention, or just didn’t feel like what everyone else is doing applies to them.
There are always outliers.
The ones who set their own pace. When they are ready.
I identified them and moved forward.
I started in, knowing this talk would be very short. Just enough to get a few words across and have them answer a few questions and roll them out to play.
I know attention spans and I don’t ever want to test them to their limits.
So my next question is my standard beginning.
“Can anyone tell me what it means when I say the words GOOD CHARACTER?”
A few hands went up immediately. The same hands that clapped the first time I asked them to.
I called on one in front of me. She said “Character is like a person in a movie.”
I smiled and told her she was exactly right.
And I called on the next one. He said character is playing a role. Like in a movie. And the third girl I called on responded the same way.
Then the next little girl in the yellow coat. She was quiet, I had to walk into the crowd of kids to hear her response. And really quietly she said, “So then good character would be like the Little Mermaid. She was good.”
So I asked her why she was good.
And she responded “The Little Mermaid was caring and did the right things.”
Good character means being a good character. In every way.
She was right on. So we took a different turn today and instead of the seven year old who answered that question at the University Of Tennessee camp three years ago that character was picking up a piece of trash when you see it, we talked of mermaids and villains.
And character became for them a little more than just a part in a movie. It became who they are when it counts, and whether they would help a friend when she was hurt or when they could make sure their friend had enough cookies at lunch. Their words, of course.
I was in awe of the beautiful simplicity in their answers and moved through my words quickly so as to keep the peace.
They taught me that courage means being brave and confidence is about standing up tall and proud. And the little boy in the red shirt said that one new way he could be brave was that even if he was scared to, he could eat his vegetables. Because maybe they aren’t really that bad anyway.
So don’t be surprised if there are a few extra pieces of trash missing tomorrow from the schools, and a few more peas and green beans gone off of plates, and a few less kids going cookie-less at lunch.
Even with some backs turned and bouncing around on chairs and distractions, the message was clearly received. And they gave it back to me.
As I was talking to the Director before I left, a little girl came up to me with the most beautiful sparkle in her eyes and smile that could last for days, she shook my hand and with a soft, gentle voice, she looked up at me with amazement and wonder and said “Are you a real author?”
I quickly responded as I shook her hand with “Are you a real little girl in a pink shirt?”
She giggled and nodded her head.
I asked her what her favorite subject in school was. She smiled and said Math. I chuckled. I hated math.
And just then the director said, “Well, you could write a book for all the children who don’t like math and help them to be more confident.”
I chimed in immediately and told her that I would have LOVED that book growing up.
She beamed at me when I told her she could have taught me.
Before she turned to go, I asked her to keep up the good work because being good at math is awesome. And that I would buy her book someday if she wrote one.
She thanked me and as she turned to go, I watched her smile grow at least five times.
I left there thinking about all that happened in that short burst of time. And as I closed my car door and sank into my quiet seat about to turn my car on, it hit me. Just like the Little Mermaid, I choose to be a good character.
And yes, Judith, I am a real author. And so are you.
We write our own characters, and then we live them out.
And today, I am the Little Mermaid who writes books.