Just One Word: Plastics

When Mr. McGuire gave Benjamin Braddock (The Graduate, 1967) the titular advice of this post, I laughed along with the rest of the audience. McGuire goes on to predict, “There is a great future in plastics.” We now know that future is estimated to last anywhere from ten to one thousand years.

According to CBS Sunday Morning’s cover story Piling Up: Drowning in a Sea of Plastics  on August 5, about 70% of our plastic waste ends up in dumps or landfills. Additionally between five and twelve million metric tons of plastic enters our oceans annually. It will eventually breakdown into smaller and smaller pieces over the years, but it will never biodegrade.

A 2017 National Graphic report indicates that 79% (6.3 billion tons) of plastic in landfills becomes “free-floating” waste. The United States alone is responsible for 327 billion plastic bags each year in the ocean. CBS references the World Economic Forum’s prediction that our oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050. I’m not laughing anymore, Mr. McGuire.

I know I will never be able to avoid using all plastic products, but for the past month, I’ve made more environmentally conscious buying decisions. I’ve shopped with reusable grocery bags for several years, but now I am attempting to eliminate all nonessential plastic from my purchases. I buy loose mushrooms rather than those packed in plastic and Styrofoam. As much as I love cherry tomatoes, I’ve stopped buying the ones packed in little plastic domes. I love the variety pack of mini red, yellow, and orange sweet peppers. But since they are sold only in prepackaged plastic bags, I’ve discontinued buying them.

Avoiding redundant plastic at check-out isn’t easy. Cashiers can slap already packaged items into a plastic bag before sending them on to my reusable bag in the blink of an eye. Excited to find cherry tomatoes in an open cardboard container at Whole Foods Market, I popped a pint into my cart. At checkout, the cashier dumped them into a plastic bag faster than a flea jumps on a dog.

Last week, for the first time, I managed to avoid all plastic packaging and bags on my trip to the supermarket. One of my purchases was a pack of light-weight mesh, reusable produce bags. They were the last item the cashier scanned. She held them up, turned to me, and asked, “Want these in a plastic bag?”

Kermit was correct. “It’s not easy being green.”





Cutting the Cord

Ending any relationship is difficult, but ending one that has lasted decades is gut-wrenching. Except for a necessary dalliance with a 225 area code number in Denham Springs during the Katrina diaspora and a compulsory, five-month stint with a Cox impostor when I returned to New Orleans in November 2005, my 504 Southern Bell number and I have shared the greater part of my adult life.

Fifty years of stability and fidelity—more than can be said of most relationships. But now, after all this time, we’re drifting apart. As in any failed relationship, the blame falls on both partners. I started spending more time with my cell, giving only her number to friends, putting only her number on my business cards. I had to. She was willing to go out with me. The Southern Bell was always tied to home. Plus, the perky little cell was more fun. She played games, showed me cute cat videos, made odd little sounds to remind me of appointments. The staid Southern Bell was a dark lump on the desk…blinking only if there was a message, giving the same harsh, annoying ring if someone called.

The cell is capricious, though. I can’t trust her. In some areas of the house, she’s likely to leave the person on the other end hanging mid-sentence or me babbling into thin air until I realize the connection has been dropped. My Southern Bell would never do that. Lately, however, I wonder about Miss Bell’s loyalty. Her caller I.D. often shows “Unknown Name” or “Private Number.” What is she hiding from me?

It will be hard to say good-bye, but I think we both know the time is coming. I rarely hold her anymore, and she hangs out with strangers. I’ll probably drag the relationship out for a few more months, but it won’t be too long before I cut the cord.



Variations on the W.C.

If it is true that learning a new task stimulates blood flow to certain areas of the brain, then foreign travel is possibly one of the best activities to keep our minds sharp. Within hours of leaving the routines of home, we are bombarded with the unfamiliar and forced to learn new tasks. We navigate distant cities, trade in alien currencies, and struggle to communicate in a nonnative tongue. We stand reverently below Leonardo’s Last Supper or gaze in awe at Michelangelo’s David. Then, we must visit the W.C., and this is where real learning begins!

I have never before seen more variations on the water closet than I did on our recent trip to Italy. In many locations, rest rooms were unisex. More common, however, were the separate toilet areas for men and women, joined by a coed hand washing area. Washing hands next to a guy who had just emerged from a door marked “uomini” felt a bit awkward to me. I stuck with the guy’s urinal rule…no talking at the shared sink.

Speaking of sinks, whether they were located inside or outside the W.C., it was always a challenge to turn the water on and off. After several attempts at shaking my hands beneath a spigot, I realized that few sinks had the automatic on/off feature. Some sinks had one faucet; some had two. There were knobs to push, sensors on the wall to wave at, and my personal favorite, the hidden pedal beneath the sink to step on.

The potty structure also proved to be an adventure. Many were just like our old American Standard. This style came with or without the seat. Some cantankerous ones had seats that automatically flipped up when lowered, I supposed an attempt to keep the seat from being sprinkled on. I found this out the hard way when, after lowering the seat, it popped up and slapped my behind. Many commodes were like nursery school potties…seatless and only eight inches tall. I gave silent thanks to my Orange Theory trainer for making me do weighted squats.

The variety of ways to flush the toilet seemed infinite. Few had a lever on the tank, some automatically flushed upon completion of the visit, and some, most distressingly, continued to flush violently for the entire visit. My personal, environmental favorite was the one that gave the choice of a big flush for number two and a small flush for number one. Some had a knob or chain to pull. Others had a hidden pedal on the floor. The toilet in our bathroom in Milan had a faucet handle on the wall behind it…turn left for as long as the water was needed; turn right to stop the flow. One toilet had me stumped for quite a while, until I saw a three-inch diameter black rubber dome down low on the wall. I pressed my foot against it. Voila!

Necessity is the mother of many things, and until one morning in Verona, I had adapted to all these bathroom idiosyncrasies. After finishing my cappuccino and croissant at our favorite little breakfast spot, I decided to visit the W.C. before we headed into the Old Town. The very proper gentleman owner ushered me to an unmarked door, and I stepped inside. There was a sink and a hole in the floor. One ridged, porcelain tile was located on either side of the hole, to prevent slipping I supposed. I hesitated a bit and then thought, “If Italian women can do this, so can I.” But it had been decades since I’d been camping, and as I prepared to squat, I couldn’t decide if I should face the hole or back up to it. How would I aim? Wouldn’t I splash my feet and stain my cute sandals? My neurons were firing like crazy, but no matter how much blood flowed to the learning area of my brain, this was one task that would go unmastered. I stepped on a pedal to flush the unused hole and waved my hand in front of the wall to wash my unsoiled hands. Upon leaving the cubical, I told the owner “grazie,” stopped at our outside table to get the house key from Edmund, and hoofed it three blocks back to our rental. Education, after all, does have its limits!


Time for ALA!

I’m excited to participate in my first American Library Association Conference this coming weekend at the Morial Convention Center right here in my hometown of New Orleans! Michelle Obama will open the event on Friday evening. Saturday morning I’ll catch the presentation of  Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also wrote a little book about baseball. If you are around, stop by the Pelican Publishing booth on Sunday between 11 AM and 12:30 PM and share your favorite dog rescue or baseball story with me.

History Lesson in Black and White*

Mississippi Beach, 1947

 I am one in the grayscale photo, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
balanced on dimpled, toddler legs.

My morning shadow stretches
toward the wooden pier behind me,
hinting of the woman I will become.

Across the highway, oak trees brush the sky.
I smile into the camera, unaware of my white privilege
and darker girls on separate “but equal” beaches.

It is August 1947, one month before the mighty oaks
are felled and the pier is crushed to kindling
by a great September storm.

Thirteen years before little Ruby Bridges.
Twenty-one years before colored only signs
succumb to storms of change, a long over-due tidal surge.

Twenty-three years before Natasha’s feet
leave prints in the sand where I once stood.

Kathleen Schrenk, 2018

*The inspiration for this poem came from Natasha Trethewey’s poem, “History Lesson,” from her book Domestic Work (Graywolf Press, 2000). You can read her beach poem here.

Making the Decision

“We’ve made this trip too many times,” my husband said as he put down the empty cat carrier and unlocked the back door. We had just returned from the vet’s office where we had “said good-bye” to our feisty, loyal, intrepid, tortoise-shell cat. She had literally walked into our lives one morning in September, 2010. Within the first few months of her stay with us, Whodatcat had eliminated the post-Katrina mouse infestation that no catch and release mouse trap, sticky trap, or the snap-them-in-the-neck-and-kill-them trap had been able to do. She even quite generously shared her bounty with us, placing little game trophies on the back step or in our dog’s feeding dish.

We’ve owned dogs and the occasional cat for at least forty-five of the fifty years we’ve been married.  We’ve made the lonely trip home seven times—eight if you count my classroom gerbil. It never gets easier. I know some people who have decided to forgo the joy of pet ownership because the pain of parting with a beloved companion is more than they want to endure. I can respect that choice, but it’s not for me.

I am genetically wired for pets, dogs in particular. (See The Dog Gene, July 2016.) I will always have dogs and possibly another “accidental cat.” When I sign on for that owner/pet relationship, I know that somewhere down the road I’ll be faced with making the decision of when it is the right time to end the animal’s life humanely.

Deciding when to euthanize a pet is like selling stock. It’s unlikely that a person will be able to pick the optimal time. For most of our animals, my husband and I waited too long. Whether it was out of selfishness—we wanted more time with them—or cowardice—we weren’t strong enough to make the decision, we prolonged the life of a terminally ill pet that was probably in more pain than we wanted to admit.

Whodatcat was diagnosed with inoperable, aggressive, intestinal cancer before Christmas. If she hadn’t vomited blood, I would not have suspected she was ill. The veterinarian gave us choices, and we picked the middle road. He prescribed a steroid to drizzle over her food to reduce inflammation. She ate heartily and seemed to thrive. We knew, however, that the cancer was continuing to spread throughout her body every minute of every day.

Last Friday, she vomited blood again, came inside, ate her breakfast, and attacked a chair. In other words, she seemed perfectly normal, except for the throwing up blood part, which is pretty hard to ignore. We talked to the vet. We could increase the steroids, he said, and give her medicine to stop the bleeding and quell the nausea. Maybe she’d have a couple of more months. She’d still have cancer. It would continue to spread. Then, one day she wouldn’t seem to be perfectly normal. She would stop playing. She would stop eating. She would be in pain.

We made the decision to put her down that afternoon. I held her as the vet gave her the sedative. She relaxed into my arms. She was warm, she was comfortable, and her fur was soft. She was still beautiful. We told her good-bye and headed home with the empty carrier.

Did we time it perfectly right? Maybe we got out of the market a little too soon, for us. But for Whodatcat, we were able to spare her the pain of a lingering death. For Whodatcat, I think we timed it just right.


Living With Whole30

Since ancient times, people have gathered together to share their meals. We sometimes dine alone, but more often than not, dining is a social event. Never before have I been more aware of this than during September, when I chose to go on the Whole30 Diet. If you’re not familiar with it, Whole30 is similar to a Paleo Diet. To give you a short version, permitted foods are meat, fish, shellfish, poultry, nuts, eggs, and fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit. Dairy, grains, legumes, white potatoes, pasta, sugar, additives, and alcohol are forbidden.

In any town, this would be a tough diet to follow. But I live in New Orleans.  We celebrate births, baptisms, weddings, deaths, and everything in between with food and drink. We discuss what we’ll have for dinner while eating lunch. Food and drink are sacrosanct. Part of this town was in an uproar when a venerable restaurant switched from hand-chipped ice to ice cubes for their cocktails. That’s how intense we are about the dining experience.

I picked the month of September to try this experiment because daytime temps are still in the 90s, relative humidity hovers around the same number, and it’s the peak of hurricane season. That makes September an “off-month” for events here.

I quickly discovered that the term “off-month” is relative. In the month of September, I attended: a book release party at Rock and Bowl; The Curtain Call Ball at Le Petit; the opening play at Le Petit; a welcome back dinner at the home of friends; a Saints football game; book club; a lecture presentation/cocktail party; my monthly manuscript critique group; brunch with visiting friends; lunch with more visiting friends; a birthday party; and a birthday dinner at a restaurant in the French Quarter. This does not count three committee/board meetings that I attended. In the New Orleans tradition, food and alcohol were a part of all these events.

Why did I choose to do go on the diet? I wanted to lose weight, have more energy, reduce inflammation from arthritis, and feel better during morning workouts.

Because I love fruits, vegetables, chicken and seafood, I originally didn’t think this diet would be so great a challenge. I thought the hardest part would be giving up wine.  At social events, however, it was easy to order a glass of club soda and lime or a La Croix. Before dinner at home, I drank tea or La Croix while my husband enjoyed a whiskey sour. I wish the food restrictions had been solved that easily.

Eating at home was manageable, although I did miss my “go-to” breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and granola; I grew tired of eggs and meat in the morning. Dining out, whether at someone’s home, a party venue, or a restaurant, was the greatest challenge. In most restaurants, I was limited to salad, oil and vinegar on the side. Maybe I could top the salad with grilled shrimp or chicken. Often I had to request that cheese, beans, corn or candied nuts be left out.  At a party venue with a buffet or passed hors d’oeuvres, I couldn’t ask for a special order. I usually ate nothing, unless there was a raw veggie or fruit platter.

When dining at someone’s home, I chose not to ask what was in the food or make special requests. That resulted in “diet failure.” At book club, for instance, I found out after I had eaten roasted butternut squash that it contained brown sugar and butter. At the welcome back dinner, I did toast with a glass of champagne and accept the peach tart placed in front of me. It seemed rude to do otherwise.

What were the results after thirty days? I lost ten pounds; gained energy; and felt better and burned more calories during my workouts. The pain has lessened in some of my joints; but some, especially my neck and jaw, showed no improvement. Those are the physical results. More impressive, however, were the mental and emotional results.

I have gained empathy for the person who must always be aware of what she eats because of health issues. The diet set me apart from others. It was isolating. People who have life threatening food allergies, Crohn’s disease, diabetes, lactose intolerance, high cholesterol, and other dietary limitations, don’t experiment for a month. They have a life-long commitment or suffer severe consequences.

I have become more aware of what I put in my mouth. If I fixed a peanut butter and cracker snack for my grandson, it was likely I’d fix some for myself and lick the spoon, whether hungry or not. If there was a bit of leftover food from dinner or from a party we had given, I’d eat it rather than throw it away. I like to snack. Going forward, I hope to channel my increased awareness and break the habit of mindless eating.

Will I do it again? Probably not, at least not as strictly as I did this time. Am I glad I stuck with it for thirty days? Absolutely! The physical benefits were good, better than I expected. But being mindful about what I eat, conscious about how diet affects my body, and sensitive to the special dietary needs of others are lessons I hope will stay with me for life.



On Monday, September 11, The Crescent City Farmers’ Market and hundreds of seafood lovers lost a unique individual, a force in the industry. Clara Gerica was the flavor of New Orleans, and you know I’m not talking about her shrimp, crabs, and black drum. In her memory and her honor, I’d like to share with you a paper that I wrote for English 2016 at UNO three years ago. The assignment was to sit somewhere public—a coffee shop, bar, park—and eavesdrop; then, write about it. I chose to sit in Clara’s seafood stall at the Thursday market at American Can. This is for you, Clara.

Overheard at the Market

            “I got whole shrimp, hand-peeled and deveined shrimp, crabmeat—special lump, regular lump, and claw—soft shells, drum, sheepshead and catfish. This recording goes off every three minutes.” Clara laughs, and her signature cackle can be heard all the way to the parking lot. The sign on her tent at the Thursday market says “Fresh Seafood,” but that isn’t all Clara serves up. Political commentary, philosophy, cooking advice, and family stories are dished out in equal measure.

“I had a dog looked just like that,” she tells a customer. “Part shepherd, part golden retriever. Best dog I ever had. You only get a couple of good ones in your life, and he was one of mine.”

It’s hot. Heavy, gray clouds hang low in the sky, pressing the heat down to the pavement. Clara’s royal blue, sleeveless t-shirt is wet with perspiration and water from the ice-chests holding the shrimp. Her long, brown hair is pulled back from her face and restrained in a functional pony tail. She’s an ample woman—full-figured—with a swarthy complexion. She is of a proud, Louisiana fishing family. Sweat drips from her forehead and she wipes it with a red bandana.

“They say cooler weather’s coming next week. We’ll see.” She hints at a distrust of the meteorologists.

“There was a decent breeze last evening,” a customer comments. “Felt pretty good out.”

“I live on the water,” says Clara. “The porch is nice. But by the time I get home, I don’t always make it out there.” She laughs again.

In spite of the heat, the stall smells clean. The scent of fresh shrimp mingles with the tempting aroma of cinnamon from baked goods in the booth across the way. To the left of Clara’s booth, dairy men discuss the laying habits of their hens. “Too hot to lay,” one says. “Not getting but thirty eggs a day. Come fall, it’ll be up to at least seventy-five.”

“Those are some beautiful shrimp,” an older man passing through comments.

“Sixteen – twenty count,” she says, “just pulled ’em out of Lake Borgne yesterday. Six dollars a pound, or four for twenty.”

“Wish I could get some, but I’m too long on the road and I don’t have an ice chest.”

“How long?”

“Hour, hour and a half?”

“I can pack them for you. Wrap them in newspaper and double bag with ice. They’ll be fine.”

He orders four pounds. Clara pulls on her heavy, blue rubber gloves and plunges strong arms the size of two large catfish into the icy water. The shrimp are weighed in a hanging, galvanized scale and dumped onto newspaper to be packed for travel.

A fortyish woman wearing a worn green t-shirt advertising Cafe Loveless Hotel stops to look at the soft shells. “I love these, but I don’t know how to cook them,” she says.

“Just like fish,” Clara tells her. “Dust them with Zatarain’s fish fry and deep fry in hot oil. Or you can pan sauté them in butter and olive oil. Me? I like them fried. Want me to show you how to clean them?”

The woman gets squeamish when instructed how to cut out the eyes, squeeze the swim bladder, and remove the gills and testicles. But she orders three.

“You want ice with that?” Clara asks.

“Got any redfish?” a grandmotherly African-American woman wants to know.

“Those are game fish—can’t sell ’em. I sell redfish, they shut me down and send me to jail. Years ago, we fought that bill and lost. Spent a lot of time in Baton Rouge to lobby the legislature. My daughter here was a baby. All her clothes made by my Grandma and everybody said how cute she looked. But it came down to the vote, and we lost. I said, ‘You’re taking food out of my baby’s mouth,’ but they still voted against us. Yep, we got the best politicians money can buy. I saw the white envelopes change hands with my own eyes. How ’bout some black drum?”

“Is your crabmeat fresh?
“Just picked it last night. I pick Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday markets.”

“I need a pound of claw. Want to make a crab and eggplant bisque with these finger eggplants I just got.”

“Sounds good,” said Clara. “I’d like your recipe.”

“I’ll just be making it up as I go along.”

“You got two good ingredients. It’ll be good. Some dishes you can’t mess up. Want ice with that?”

“I got whole shrimp, hand-peeled and deveined shrimp, crabmeat—special lump, regular lump, and claw—soft shells, drum, sheepshead and catfish. This recording goes off every three minutes.” The market fills with people stopping by on their way home from work. Clara’s laughter spills over the crowd and rises above the blue, green, orange, and yellow umbrellas of the market stalls.

Epilogue: Today I’m fixing shrimp bisque with my last pound of Clara’s frozen, deveined shrimp. Rest in peace, Clara.

Hurricane Harvey Animal Assistance

If you are interested in helping animals affected by the flood, or if you are preparing to evacuate or shelter in place with an animal, please read the important information below.


Louisiana SPCA Tropical Storm Harvey Updates

Animal rescue and local preparations

NEW ORLEANS – The Louisiana SPCA is continuing to make advance preparations for Tropical Storm Harvey to assist with animal rescue efforts locally, should the need arise, and to already affected areas.

Texas Response

  • We are in contact with Houston SPCA and SPCA of Texas. We are encouraging the public to NOT donate tangible items. From our past experience with Hurricane Katrina, the immediate need for animal disaster assistance is monetary donations. This allows affected shelters to purchase the items they need without having to sort through and store thousands of donated items. Once the floodwaters recede and the groups are able to assess damages and needs, they will be able to better tell the public what tangible items they need. Please make monetary donations directly to Houston SPCA or SPCA of Texas.
  • For owned animals, consider donating gift cards to places like Petco and PetSmart. This will allow pet parents to purchase the items they are in most need of.
  • If you are an animal welfare professional and want to volunteer your skills to assist with the relief efforts, please visit our website and complete the online form. Volunteer information will be shared directly with Houston SPCA and SPCA of Texas so they can contact you if they require your assistance.

Local Preparations

The Louisiana SPCA is in constant communication with the City of New Orleans and state representatives to ensure we are prepared to provide assistance should localized flooding occur. “Because we are not safely out of the danger zone yet, we are doing our best to reduce intake and move adoptable animals out of our facility,” says Louisiana SPCA CEO, Ana Zorrilla.

We are creating as much space possible at our facility should the need arise to take-in animals affected by flooding. We transported 30 adoptable cats and dogs to Atlanta Humane Society late Friday night. In addition, we are encouraging members of our community to adopt a shelter pet. The End of Summer Adoption Blowout is being extended through the week to help make space. The Adoption fee is reduced to $10 to cover the cost of the City’s rabies license. Adoptable animals can be viewed at www.la-spca.org/adoptables.

We received a delivery of 100 wire crates from the state to assist with setting up a temporary animal shelter should the need arise.

We will pick-up and house any pets owned by homeless individuals that enter a shelter during flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey. Current open shelters include New Orleans Mission, Salvation Army, Ozanam Inn and Covenant House.

Humane Law Enforcement is currently only responding to emergency calls. All other calls will be responded to once threats from Tropical Storm Harvey are gone. If you need to report an animal emergency call 504.368.5191 x 100 or email dispatch@la-spca.org.

Pet owners that reside in Orleans Parish and need the City’s assistance to evacuate, be sure to register by calling 311. Registering in advance is critical.

We are in contact with several Louisiana animal groups. Below are a few updates that we want to make the public aware of.

  • St. Landry Animal Shelter – Despite media reports and social media chatter, the physical shelter has not flooded. There are outside kennels that were flooding from rainfall and those animals have been safely evacuated. The shelter is extremely full however and we are working to transport out as many animals as possible to so they can better assist with rescue efforts. At St. Landry Animal Shelter’s request, the Louisiana SPCA is assisting with coordinating and executing large scale transports. Currently, Greater Birmingham Humane Society has agreed to take in about 25 large dogs and we are working to secure other transports with Capital Area Humane Society in Ohio and Nashville Humane Society. The Louisiana SPCA is sending a team to complete health certifications for each animal so they can be transported out-of-state.
  • Lake Charles – We have spoken with the animal shelter in Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish Animal Services & Adoption Center, and they are currently not in need of assistance. As the weather forecast changes for Tropical Storm Harvey, we will continue reassess their needs and assist.

We are urging pet owners to make sure they have made provisions for their pets in the event of localized flooding. Be sure to have the following items ready to go should you need to evacuate quickly:

  • Food and water – Keep food in an airtight, waterproof container. Water should be in addition to the water you need for yourself and family.
  • Medicine and medical records – Keep an extra supply of medicines your pet takes on a regular basis in a waterproof container. All boarding facilities and veterinarian offices require proof of immunization before accepting animals.
  • Collar with ID tags, harness or leash – Your pet should wear a collar with an up-to-date rabies tag and identification at all times. Include a backup leash, collar and ID tag. Place copies of your pet’s registration information, adoption papers, vaccination documents and medical records in a clear plastic bag or waterproof container. Talk to your veterinarian about permanent identification such as microchipping and enrolling your pet in a recovery database.
  • Crate or other pet carrier – Get a portable, secure and covered pet carrier in advance. The carrier should be large enough so your pet can completely turn around and lie down. Mark your name, address, phone number and alternate contact information on the carrier.
  • Sanitation – Include pet litter, small litter box, newspaper, towels, plastic trash bags, poop bags and household chlorine bleach. Do not use scented or color safe bleaches or those with added cleaners. Use 16 drops of regular bleach per gallon of water.

For the most up-to-date information from the Louisiana SPCA be sure to visit our Facebook page.

The Louisiana SPCA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization dedicated to promote, protect and advance the well-being of Louisiana’s companion animals. As the oldest and most comprehensive animal welfare organization in the state, the Louisiana SPCA provides care for over 43,000 homeless and companion animals annually. For more than 128 years, the Louisiana SPCA has been committed to serving the needs of the people and animals in the community and across the region as a 4-Star Charity Navigator rated nonprofit ranking in the top 1 percent nationally. For more information, call 504.368.5191 or visit www.la-spca.org.







Like Riding a Bike

It had been more than a few years since I’d taught in a classroom setting, and when I had, my largest class numbered twenty-three students. After taking early retirement, I tutored one-on-one in the S.T.A.I.R. program, led Junior Great Books discussion groups, and, as a volunteer docent, explored the butterfly gardens of City Park with young children. Each of these activities involved groups of fewer than twelve children.

So when I accepted the opportunity to do my first school presentation of A Dog Steals Home at Northshore Elementary in Knox County, Tennessee, I was a bit overwhelmed to find I would be working with one hundred seventy-five fifth graders. The butterflies from the City Park gardens seemed to have relocated to my stomach.

Then the demons of self-doubt moved in. Are middle-graders today a different species from those kids I taught years ago? How will I keep the attention of children who were practically born with tablets or cell phones clutched in their little fists when I don’t even own a laptop? What if they ask a question I can’t answer? What if they didn’t like my book? The “what-if” birds pecked away at my self-confidence.

As I prepared for my presentation, the butterflies, birds, and demons began to scatter. They were lurking around somewhere, I’m sure, but I was too busy to look for them.  I outlined my talking points, wrote and sent writing prompts for the teachers to use for a “pre-visit” activity, and requested that the teachers have students submit questions for me to answer on my visit.

I arrived in Knoxville the afternoon before the presentation and stayed at the home of the teacher who had arranged my visit. She offered the use of her laptop and worked with me to put my talking points on a flipchart file for the students to view. We added pictures and diagrams from the internet and from my downloads. I spent some time looking over the students’ replies to the writing prompts and chose a few to share. I was impressed by the quality of their responses.

The next morning we arrived at school early so my host could set up the laptop and I would have time to practice using it. My first group arrived at 7:45—sixty bright-eyed fifth graders! The session flew by as I led them in discussion questions. They shared their thoughts willingly and actively supported opposing viewpoints.

Then I had a chance to answer their questions. Just as I had been impressed when I read their writing prompt responses, I was equally pleased with their questions. “What inspired you to write this book?” “What was the hardest part about writing?” “Where did you get the ideas for your characters?” “How do you get a book published?” were just a few. They listened to my answers and responded with more questions if they weren’t clear about something I’d said.

By 11:45, I had met with all three groups—all one hundred seventy-five students! I loved that some of them wanted to stay and talk, asked me to sign scraps of paper if they didn’t have a copy of the book, or gave me suggestions for my next book. Some students had illustrated my book chapter by chapter! Not one demon, butterfly, or what-if bird had made an appearance during the entire morning. I realized that teaching, perhaps, is a bit like riding a bike. Once you learn how, you never forget.