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COLUMNIST CONQUERS FEAR OF 5TH GRADE

Although I have taught college students without nervousness for 22 years, I discovered a group of young people who genuinely made me nervous. I was asked to speak to 110 fifth-graders at the Canyon View Elementary School about my life in the newspaper business.

As the hour for my visit drew nearer, my hands became sweatier. So I began collecting a lot of stuff - things that would act as visual aids that I could use in a pinch - anything that could help me hang onto the attention of a group with whom I had no experience.Through our terrific Newspaper in Education staff, I came up with some wonderful items to help me explain the workings of a newspaper.

Then, because my own son, Spencer, would be included in the group, I questioned him about what I could expect.

Were they hard to keep interested? Did they tend to be noisy? Did he have any tips for me?

He thought for a long minute, then said, "I don't know what to tell you - except that the last speaker we had told about his experiences in the Persian Gulf war - and they listened to that! The guy before that had been a prisoner of war and they listened to him!"

I had no more questions - I just took a quick breath, collected about 50 more visual aids and drove to the school - sort of like a lamb to the slaughter.

When I got there I was ushered into a huge carpeted room called a kiva, with stairs for the students to sit on. I hurriedly scattered hundreds of visual aids of every size and shape all over two tables and waited to be introduced.

Callie Homer asked the students how many of them recognized "the man in front," and 75 percent of the hands went up. I went into a state of shock. You mean these kids read the newspaper? The answer turned out to be a resounding yes.

Linda Hobson, another teacher, gave me a clever introduction. She had asked my son to list several of my characteristics, and so she read what he had written off the sheet:

- "He makes a lot of stupid jokes."

- "He loves lima beans and raw potatoes."

- "He wears funny-looking hats."

OK, nothing too terribly embarrassing in that!

Then Hobson, who knew that I like David Letterman's top 10 lists, made her own top 10 list as her contribution - "The top 10 reasons Dennis Lythgoe is at Canyon View today instead of at the Deseret News." Some examples:

- "He's hiding from his editor because he doesn't have his column ready for next week."

- "He's actually spying on Mrs. Roberts to see if all the things Spencer has told him about her are true. He was heard to remark, `Spencer, I don't see a broomstick. Are you sure about this?' "

- "He's doing field work for an article called, `I nearly died in the school cafeteria."'

- "His wife wanted him to paint the driveway, and coming here was the only way he could get out of it."

- "He made a foolish bet with Spencer - and he lost."

- "He had a choice of either speaking here or having a root canal. It was a hard choice, but when the dentist called and said he had run out of laughing gas he chose to come here."

- "Secretly he has always wanted to be a fifth-grade teacher and this is his one shot at the big time. DON'T GET ANY IDEAS ABOUT MAKING THIS PERMANENT."

Don't worry. My nervous system couldn't handle it. Actually, they were excellent listeners. When I told them they could raise their hands and ask questions at any time, they relaxed as much as I did.

Although I used some of the visual aids, I used mostly what was in my head and we had an interesting conversational exchange.

Not only were they newspaper readers, but there wasn't much I could tell them that they didn't know about already. I told them I had ridden Walt Disney's own plane to California to go on Splash Mountain right after it opened - and showed them pictures of it. Then I asked how many of them had been on Splash Mountain. Again 75 percent of them raised their hands.

When it was over, several students crowded around to ask more questions and help me reassemble my visual aids.

Then they shook my hand and thanked me kindly.

These kids get around.