It starts with a word from Mary Pope Osborne printed on the back of an old Scholastic Book Club catalog cover:
Before I know it, the door swings open to the courtyard and I am caught up in a stream of 4th graders rushing into the fresh August air.
“Stop,” I say before the few stragglers can make it across the threshold. “There’s one right there already.”
“One what?” one asks.
I put my pen to the page and read aloud as I write:
The hose, like a snake on the sidewalk…
“Sorry,” I say, meeting their eyes. “Sometimes the ideas come so quickly, I just have to get them down.”
I pretend I don’t notice their sideways glances as I follow them out into the sunshine where a group of girls–just past the sidewalk–whisper over an upturned palm. “It looks so old,” one says under her breath.
I walk past, my nose in my notebook, muttering to myself as I write:
The girl w/ glue on her hand hides it in her pocket.
“So, that’s what we have to do,” one of the grouped girls asks as I meander toward the center of the courtyard. She is on her tiptoes, trying to see into the pages of my notebook.
I lower it to where she can see. “When I get ideas, I just start to list them. Of course, you could put them in a Circle Map if you’d like.”
“No, I think I’ll just list,” and before I can say anymore, she is off and writing. A path clears to the focus of another group of students.
“Oh, wow!” I say, looking into the dark depths of drainage that I had not noticed the week before as we had convened in this space for our staff breakfast. But now I see it. And it is a wonderful gift:
The vines grow in tangles on the grate in the center of the courtyard.
I sit there on my heels over the drain and think back to all the years that I’ve led this lesson. At first, I was worried that we wouldn’t find anything to write about. That was before the year of the praying mantis, when I realized that the ideas are always out there. Always out there, just waiting for our writers to capture them. And this year is no different. In fact, every year I am amazed at just what the cosmos have in store for those who think an empty courtyard may offer little in the way of stories to fill the pages of freshly cracked writers’ notebooks. From killer bees to fairy princesses, the ideas come quickly. And sometimes so perfectly that no amount of planning could create an experience like this one, because at just the right moment, the unexpected happens:
I wonder what lives down there? Whatever it is, I hope it eats pencils. Sharon just dropped hers.
She races inside to get another, not wanting to miss this opportunity to capture the excitement we all feel as the “this” that they have to do becomes the “this” that they get to do.
I finish my time in the courtyard watching
The two boys sit at the only table in the shade. It makes the rest of us feel hot.
Courtyards at schools, at prisons, at castles…
And, of course, writing.
Can you believe that this is my job? This is what I get to do every day. No amount of magic–not in a whistle or an artists studio or even in a tree house–could put me in a better place.
For more about this lesson, which I’ve done every year since I can remember, click here.
“Lucky Post-a-Poster: How the Magic Tree House Was Built!” Scholastic Book Clubs, “Lucky,” Grades 2-3. November 2003.