Thursday, March 02, 2006


I couldn’t wait to write about my awesome experience at Monroe Elementary on the Northwest side of Chicago last Friday, February 24; however, circumstances beyond my control (school assignments!) and my excitement kept me from writing right away, but here is the blow-by-blow.

(The Monroe Welcome Quilt : You can barely see my name but it's right under the M & E -- for "Choose Me")

I arrived at Monroe early, so pleased with myself that I had found a convenient street parking; I was calm and happy -- only to be told by my sister (who met me there in her car) that there was street cleaning from 9am-3pm (don’t ask me why I didn’t see the BIG ORANGE sign on the BIG OAK tree). So after walking up to the school, I had to walk my calm-happy self back to the car and drive around until I found another parking spot. We were greeted by my uncle, who is the vice principal at Monroe. My uncle is the kind of uncle every family has, you know, the character who keeps everyone laughing, who drinks but claims he’s given it up, who always has a story to tell, etc. Right away, he’s trying to feed us (typical Puerto Rican) offering us coffee and coffee cake, juice and bagels.

I invited my sister (the fifth-grade teacher) because she is currently writing a book about respect for intermediate grades. Her book is in rough draft form (she’s only written eight chapters so far), but I told her that her story was more age-appropriate than mine, so I finally convinced her to take the day off and come along. As soon as we arrived in the building, for some reason, she was intimidated. If you know my sister, this is out of character for her. She is the first to enter an unfamiliar room, the first to approach people in an event, etc. When we go up the stairs, the first thing we see is a quilt with all the authors’ names (my sister was a last-minute add-on so her name wasn’t on it). I was so honored. Everywhere in the school, there were these beautiful quilts made by the students with the help of their art teacher, the talented Ms. Haynes, who is retiring this year.

My uncle took us to the cafeteria where the parents were having breakfast for their monthly “Coffee & Conversation” (great idea). There they introduced us to everyone in English and Spanish. I was not prepared for this, I whispered to my sister. When it was her turn, she grabbed the microphone and introduced herself and talked about her book-in-progress (yes, the same sister who had been intimidated just moments before). I was a little nervous because I didn’t have anything prepared, switching back and forth in both languages, but I gave a short blurb about Choose Me.

Our host for the day was Gail Arnold, a great teacher of gifted students at Monroe. She introduced us to her class (so well-behaved) who were in the midst of reading—THICK books, classics like Little Women (one of my favorites), and contemporary novels The DaVinci Code (I haven’t even read that!). I was impressed.

The other authors were Tanya Davis, author of May I Please Speak with My Father? (which I am buying for my daughter)--she is also a publisher; Darwin McBeth Walton, author of What Color Are You? (which was first published in 1973) and Glennette Tilley Turner, author of The Underground Railroad in DuPage County (1978), in addition to a whole slew of other children’s books. There was also a young 16-year-old talented artist, James Steele, who illustrated one of the books that Ms. Davis has published. In addition, Ms. Arnold’s sister was there, selling their 83-year-old dad’s book about golf, the first African-American golf instructor. There was such a variety of representation from the writing/publishing world in our small group, it was almost overwhelming. We took over the principal’s office (thank you, Mr. Menconi!) where we networked and chatted about education, school discipline, writing, publishing.

At 10:30, we were directed to the auditorium where the "African-American Read-A-Thon and Brotherhood Assembly" commenced. On the stage was another awesome quilt by Ms. Haynes and her students (see Freedom Bus Quilt). Once again, all the authors were introduced and asked to speak briefly about their books. I look bewildered at my sister but she assured me I’d be alright. (WHY was I the first one?) There were over 100 students in the audience. Once again, I spoke quickly and handed the microphone to my sister, who once again, took over. She was amazed (as we all were) at the well-behaved students. We couldn’t get over the fact that they were so q-u-i-e-t.

(The Freedom Bus Quilt courtesy of Ms. Haynes Art Class, Monroe)

Later, selected students performed: songs like Ebony & Ivory(!); a Rosa Parks tribute to the tune of “His Truth is Marching On” (unique!); a trio consisting of a piano and drums beat a hip-hop, salsa rhythm; two upper-grade girls played a melody on flutes; and one class sang a Polynesian song.

After a lunch of Subway sandwiches, we were guided by escorts to selected classrooms for 5-minute presentations. In the fifth-grade classrooms, my sister read a poem from her work-in-progress (her character writes poetry) to much applause. Mostly, we answered questions: "Is your book famous?" (Not really; mostly on the Internet. But it can get famous if you tell your mom to buy it :) ; "Are you going to be on Oprah's Book Club?" (No; I don't think Oprah likes my kind of books.)

At first I was a little disappointed that we weren’t sent to the upper grades, but apparently they had elected not to participate (they were prepping for the ISAT tests), talking to the intermediate grades and even the kindergarten class was great (I showed them the cover of the book and asked them: “Looking at the picture, what do you think the book is about?”; “African-Americans,” they predictably replied).

Highlight of the day:
Fifth-grader (to me): Are you Afri-can Ame-ri-can (meticulously pronounced)?
Me: No. I’m Puerto Rican American. But my children are half-African American.
Fifth grader: (wide-mouthed & awestruck)
Me: (thinking, O-ka-a-ay).

Needless to say, by the end of the school day (2:30 pm), I was spent. A table was set up for all of the authors to sell books. The table was small (5’x2’), but we all managed to squeeze behind it and arrange our books and material on it. Despite the cramped quarters, we talked & laughed. And, I sold out! True, I only brought four copies, but I sold out: to one of the authors, a teacher, & two parents -- on of which actually went to the ATM to get money. I love it when someone says, "I really want to buy your book but I didn't bring any money" -- And then they really do go home, or to the ATM, and actually COME BACK and buy your book.

[Back row, L to R: Ms. Arnold, our host; me, the young artist, James Steele, Tanya Davis; Front, L to R: Darwin M Walton, Glennetta T Turner]

All in all, the day was a success. It was supposed to be my day off, but I like when I do something productive what I really want to do is rest. I'm glad I went. Thank you, Monroe School, Tio Genaro, Ms. Arnold, and everyone else who made us feel famous and, at the same time, at home!