Sunday, January 25, 2015

When Great Trees Fall

This past May was a tough month for me. As you know from my last post, on May 19, 2014, we lost my grandmother, and I was heartbroken, which is part of why it's taken me so long to write a follow-up post. Sorry about that. But if I could, I'd like to take you back to that week, because while I did experience personal loss, I also experienced something pretty special.

After we got the call about my grandmother, my family and I had to scramble to get flights to Florida as soon as possible. But there was one problem: I had already committed to doing a reading that Thursday at the Washington Elementary School in West Orange, New Jersey, as part of their literacy night event.

I thought of backing out. I wanted to back out. How could I get through the event with a smile on my face as I read about Maya and Miguel and their loving grandmother? It seemed like an impossible task. 

But like my grandmother, I am a woman of my word. If I promise to do something, I do it. Besides, I knew she wouldn't have wanted me to disappoint the children. My mother told me that Grandma had once confessed that when she was younger she wanted to one day produce puppet shows for kids, but life got in the way of her dream of entertaining children. I began to look at fulfilling my promise to attend Literacy Night as a way to honor her. 

So that Thursday, the night after the rest of my family had flown to Florida to begin making funeral arrangements, I found myself driving to New Jersey. On the way there it started pouring, of course. When I arrived, Wendi Giuliano, the teacher who had invited me to speak, met me at the door with a huge umbrella--and a hug. She knew about my loss and greeted me with warmth and sympathy. I know she would have been understanding had I decided to cancel, but she was clearly relieved that I hadn't. And once I got inside, so was I. They had made all kinds of signs welcoming me to the school. And the art teacher had even drawn a life-size cut-out of Maya and Miguel.

How cool is that? Immediately, I understood how much they'd been looking forward to my visit and how hard they'd worked to prepare for the event.

Little by little, the audience of parents, teachers, and children began to pour in. They'd braved the rain too to be there. Eventually, every table in the cafeteria was full. Wendi decided the first thing we should do was have me sign books for the kids while we waited for the audio equipment to be set up.

So I sat down, expecting that only a few kids would want to have their books signed by me. But soon there was a line that stretched across the room. As each child stepped up, they told me why they liked the books or the show, or they told me how they like to write their own stories. I asked them about their favorite subjects in school and marveled over their beautiful names and how bright and interested they all were. I wrote long personalized messages in each of their books. 

But we realized that the book signing was taking much longer than they'd anticipated. I tried shortening my messages, but eventually, we had to ask that the rest of the children wait until after the presentation. Finally, Wendi introduced me to the eagerly awaiting audience. It was, by far, the largest crowd I'd ever spoken in front of, which made me nervous. But there was no need to be. The room was full of people smiling at me and quietly encouraging me, as I read Maya & Miguel: Paint the Town into the microphone. Wendi had created a slideshow of the book, which she projected behind me, so the audience could read along. They laughed at all the right things, and squawked with enthusiasm when I asked them to serve as Paco the parrot's voice. 

The best part was when I asked for volunteers from the audience to help me portray the silly things that happened to Paco in the book. Almost all of their hands shot up. But while I was trying to decide the best way to choose a volunteer, a small group of girls just ran up and stood beside me. Well, that was easy. I had one girl play Paco while the others dressed her in all the crazy things I'd brought that reflected the things Paco had to wear in the book: swim fins and goggles, a feather boa (I used a Hawaiian lei), a giant hat, a soccer ball (I used a volleyball), and a red cape (I used the one I'd gotten as part of a Wonder Woman costume I'd worn on Halloween). By the end, my volunteer Paco looked appropriately ridiculous and everyone was laughing and having fun. The reading was a success.

Afterword, we had a question and answer session. One of the kids wanted to know if I was rich and lived in a big house (no and no), what my nationality is (of Puerto Rican decent and proud), how they could become writers too (read everything you can get your hands on, learn as much as you can in school, and write, write, write), and--the best question, in my opinion--why Maya and Miguel wear the same clothes every day. Ha ha ha... I told her I thought there were two reasons. 1. Having them wear the same thing all the time helps you identify them as characters, just like Charlie Brown always wore a yellow and black shirt. As soon as you see a yellow shirt with a black zigzag line across the top, you think Charlie Brown. Hopefully the same is true for Maya and her hair ties and orange sweater. 2. It makes it easier on the illustrators, who have a tough job as it is. 

Anyway, after all that, I signed more books and took pictures with some of my young fans. 

He told me he was my "favorite fan." Aww... 

They sort of look like Maya and Miguel, don't they? 

I think these two were the first to take their picture with Maya & Miguel.
 I love it!

A couple of these wonderful kids helped me out as volunteers. Thank you! 

Finally I was treated to a delicious meal prepared by the kitchen staff: rice, chicken, salad, platanos, and all kinds of tasty treats. My kind of meal. 

And of course I took a picture with Wendi--who had worked so hard to coordinate all of this--and the principal of Washington Elementary. 

It's always such a pleasure to meet with educators who truly care about the students in their charge and are constantly trying to think of creative ways to get them excited about reading and literature. They also seemed sensitive to the cultural needs of their school's community. I was so impressed with all the teachers I met. Their love for what they do really showed. No wonder the children seemed so engaged, and the parents were so deeply involved. Nice job, Washington Elementary.

Finally, late that night, I headed home in the rain with a to-go plate of food, a giant Maya & Miguel cut-out, and a good feeling inside. In one of the last conversations my mother and I had with my grandmother, she told us how proud she was of us and the women we had become. We told her that everything we'd ever accomplished was because of her. She made the sacrifices and the brave choices that allowed us to be where we are today--my mother, a college student fulfilling her dream to become a teacher; and me, a published author, entertaining kids as she'd once hoped to. Because she'd been such a wonderful mother, her daughter had become a wonderful mother too. She seemed surprised that her own life had had such an impact. I'm glad we got to tell her how important she truly was while she was still with us. 

The same week she passed, the world also lost Maya Angelou, a poet I admired and respected very much. In many ways, she reminded me of my grandmother. So I leave you now with a few lines from Maya Angelou's poem "When Great Trees Fall," which she wrote in honor of James Baldwin but will always remind me of Guillermina White. 

And when great souls die, 
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration. 
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us. 
They existed. They existed. 
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.  

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