Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Meatball

"Life is like a bowl of spaghetti, every once in a while you get a meatball."
 -- Sharon Creech, Newbery winning author of Walk Two Moons

I had the joy and unexpected surprise of getting to hear Sharon Creech speak to a roomful of beginning teachers.  Two days later I had the pleasure of going out to dinner with her.  My take away from her story was inspiration, the thrill of teaching, the joy of writing and the mystery of how a series of events line up in a perfect way to create someone's destiny.

Sharon Creech was a high school English teacher for many years.  She had a fantastic childhood with many siblings and a stable family.  She went to college, got married had two children and found herself divorced and searching for an escape.  She interviewed for a teaching job in England but at the interview the man interviewing her made a snap judgment about her personal situation and determined that the job was too much for a single parent. He told her flat out that she wouldn't be good for the job or the students and ended the interview before hearing any of her qualifications.  She was so shocked and angered by his reaction that she wrote a three page letter outlining her qualifications and explaining how her single parent status was actually a benefit to her students...she would be compassionate and understanding...less rushed to judge and punish.  

She got the job.

But then, she found out the salary.  She faced the truth that the salary was so minimal that she really couldn't responsibly take her two children and herself overseas on such a small income.  She made the phone call to let the school know.  However, the man she was supposed to speak with was in a meeting.  She was told to call back at lunch.  But before she made the call she went to lunch herself.  She found herself at a communal table in an Indian restaurant in Washington, DC.  Eating alone, she heard a mother speaking to her daughter next to her.  They both had British accents. Sharon began speaking to them, pouring out her story and her inability to reconcile the wages of her job offer with the supreme effort of moving across an ocean and abandoning all she knew.  The woman's reply:

"Oh, you simply must go!  There's the Thames, and the theater and the adventure.  You simply must go!"

Like some neon road sign on a dark night, Sharon knew she must listen to those words.  She made the decision that made no logical sense.  The one that wasn't planned out perfectly.  The one that wasn't safe.  She moved to England.

"Leap and the net will appear."

When she moved to England, she ended up meeting the man that would eventually be her husband.  She taught English and filled up her soul with great wisdom from great writers.  She focused on teaching writing and literature and slowly over eighteen years the percolating words started bubbling out of her.  

She had to write her own stories.  The first two were novels for adults.  They got published but they didn't take off.  Then she began a novel for children.  She had a publisher but after a year's worth of work, the publisher declared her main character "unlikeable" and told her to go back and rework it.  After another year, the editor told her that the character wasn't believable.  After a third year, she was sitting in a Chinese restaurant in London and received a fortune cookie with a Native American saying:

 "Don't judge someone until you've walked two moons in their moccasins."

Instantly, Sharon knew that she had found a clue to her story.  The novel would have a Native American flavor...the title would be Walk Two Moons. She began writing in earnest and when she showed it to her editor, it was accepted.

A few months later she received a phone call -- the American Library Association had chosen her book as the Newbery medal winner for the year.  She thought it was her brother playing a joke on her.  She laughed it off until it became clear it really was the American Library Association calling her.  She had no idea how many Newberys were given or how big a deal this was.  Let's be clear: only one Newbery Medal winner is chosen a year for "the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children."

Her first children's novel won the Newbery...and it was published in England!

"You simply must go!"

That was 1995, since then Sharon has gone on to win the Carnegie Medal (the Newbery equivalent for Britain) for her book, Ruby Holler.  She's won Newbery Honor book awards and many other notable awards for children's literature for her many other compelling books.  One of my favorites: Love That Dog.  In short, she followed a winding road that lead her to her purpose.  In her acceptance speech when she received the Newbery she mentioned a line one of her students had used in his own graduation speech: "Life is like a bowl of spaghetti.  Every once in a a while you get a meatball." and went on to say: "I guess this is my meatball."

Her humble joy in writing, her insatiable curiosity about what others are thinking and feeling and her love of children and their creative way of viewing the world all meld together in her works.  At her core, she is a teacher.  She uses her words like a magnifying glass to your heart, helping you to discover your own feelings and thoughts on difficult topics like grief, isolation, independence, childhood.  She nudges, cajoles and pushes you to see your own story within hers.

I can't help but wonder what her story today would be like had she stayed in the States and played it safe.  I can't help but think of that British voice inside an Indian restaurant in Washington, DC telling her that she "simply must  go" as an angel lighting the way. I can't help but be grateful that our paths crossed for several hours.  

Today I'm grateful for Sharon Creech: her courage, her words and her instruction.  She's a reminder for me to live bravely, to write and write and write and to listen to the angels whispering all around.

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