A PEACHy Evening

Sunday, November 14, 2010 / Bloggified by Jake Bell /

I'm just back from a great event at Changing Hands in Tempe. They called it P.E.A.C.H, which stood for Party for Educators' Appreciation at Changing Hands, because a place like Changing Hands is too good to just settle for "Teachers' Night."

As part of the festivities, they invited me, along with a half dozen or so other local authors, to share stories about an inspirational teacher from the past. Officially, the email I got asked me to have a "prepared statement," so about five minutes before we took the stage, I was frantically jotting down thoughts on a folded up sheet of notebook paper while Laurie Brooks laughed at my less-than-preparedness. I guess when you've been at this for a few years, you know to have a handful of "inspirational teacher" stories memorized.

My story was probably the shortest one--which can be good or bad--and since it's unlikely you were there to hear it, I thought I'd share it.

I'd like to address all of you on behalf of the students you'll inspire who will make it, but you'll never know.

I knew I wanted to be a writer from an early age, but the first time I really considered the possibility that I'd be holding a book with my name on the cover, that I'd be speaking to a group like this as "published author Jake Bell," was in Miss Tarkoff's fifth grade class at Redbird Elementary.

Miss Tarkoff had us make books--not just stories, but books. It was amazing how much difference a little piece of posterboard on the front and back of a four page story can make in the way that you view your work. Granted, most of the books were ripoffs of either
Back to the Future or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom [I neglected to mention the numerous ripoffs of The Goonies].

I wrote a book about a character named Berke Milo Yewwers. He was a sociopathic school bus driver who gleefully ran over children and fought a ninja kid who didn't want to get off the bus and go to school and racked up a huge body count through negligence and apathy for the damage a school bus could do.

Looking back now, I can't believe I was allowed to write that story.

Every few months, you'll see a story pop up somewhere in the country about some kid who gets suspended--the best example I can remember is from a few years ago. A kid in Kentucky wrote a story about a zombie outbreak at his school. In it, he made specific references to his friends and teachers, and talked about blowing off zombies heads with a shotgun. And because it's against the rules to write about wanting to blow your classmates heads off with a shotgun--regardless of whether they've been zombified--he was suspended or expelled.

If I were in school today, I'd have to get my GED, because I would have been expelled from every school in the state by now since the only stories I wrote were about blowing people's heads off with shotguns. Fortunately, Miss Tarkoff could see that I wasn't a sociopath even if I was writing about a sociopath. Years later, Mr. Wheeler, my English teacher at Powell Junior High, was able to diagnose my reimagining of the end of
Great Expectations in which Pip murders Mrs. Havisham and Estella as a combination of boredom and a hatred of Charles Dickens's serialized writing style.

I sold my first book to Scholastic a little more than two years ago, and I looked forward to telling my teachers that I had made it. I wanted to visit Miss Tarkoff's class and tell the students how I'd been in their seats 25 years earlier. However, Miss Tarkoff retired before my first book came out, and not only is Mr. Wheeler no longer at Powell Junior High, Powell Junior High isn't even there anymore.

I'm holding my third book up here, but it would be more fitting if it were my fourth--which comes out in February, so be sure to look for it! I've dedicated it to Miss Tarkoff and Mr. Wheeler and a few other teachers who inspired me to get where I am. And I wish I could let them know, but Google fails me.

So, look at me, but don't see me. See that kid in your class who is smart enough to be getting better grades than he is, who you know has the capacity to do good things but might not be the best at staying on task. And know that while you may never see his success down the road, when it comes, he will appreciate the creativity you allow him and the freedom you give him and the faith you put in him.

Let me say, on behalf of those students--and accept from me on behalf of Miss Tarkoff and Mr. Wheeler--thank you.

The most interesting part of the evening came after the stories were all shared and we got to mingle with the educators. A woman named Mary introduced herself and asked about my teacher from Powell. Her sister used to be a teacher at Powell and is having breakfast with Mr. Wheeler and a group of other former teachers tomorrow morning.

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