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Local schools host residency by acclaimed children's author

Donna RhodesMiddle school students at Russell Elementary School in Rumney were spellbound by acclaimed children's author Patricia Polacco's stories and personal conversations with on bullying them when she paid a visit to SAU 48 last week. (Photo by Donna Rhodes) (click for larger version)
April 25, 2019
RUMNEY – During his presidency, Barak Obama and the Library of Congress both declared Patricia Polacco to be one of the Top 10 children's authors of the past 100 years, and last week, elementary and middle school students in the Pemi-Baker School District were privileged to not only have her visit them to read some of the 115-plus books she has written, but to hear her messages for them as well.

SAU 48's Assistant Superintendent Ethel Gaides was instrumental in bringing Polacco to the district for an Author In Residence program, made possible through Title 1 and Title 2-A grants.

"This has been my dream, to have Patricia come here to our district, so when I saw her availability online I immediately put in for the grants," she said.

Polacco is not only an author; she illustrates her books as well. Born in Lansing, Mich., her mother's family were Jewish immigrants from Russia and the Ukraine while her father's family came from the County of Limerick in Ireland. Both came from cultures that treasured their histories and kept them alive through storytelling, which now figures prominently in her work.

Polacco has a Bachelor's, Master's and Ph.D. in Art and Art history and has studied abroad over the years in England, France, Russia and Australia. Now in her 70's, she is a guest lecturer at many universities and holds honorary degrees in Arts and Letters. Polacco has also been honored for her work by heads of state at both the Kremlin and the White House.

Her biography includes the many close ties she made at Sandy Hook Elementary School, where she lost some of her friends in the deadly shooting that occurred there in 2012.

"The grief of this set her on a path of establishing a series of lectures designed to raise the awareness of the plight of our classroom teachers as well as encouraging students to reach out to each other and include those who are perceived to be 'different,'" it reads.

As a result of that fateful day, she has also created an anti-bullying campaign that has earned her national recognition.

While in New Hampshire last week, Polacco visited all of the elementary schools in the Pemi-Baker District. For each age group, she took time to read one of her books then had a meaningful chat with them.

At Russell Elementary School in Rumney last Friday, her time with middle school students was well spent. She read "Pink and Say," the real life Civil War story of her great-great grandfather, Sheldon "Say" Russell Curtis, and Pinkus "Pinky" Aylee, a black man he befriended when he was wounded in battle.

"It's a heartbreaking story, but I know it to be true. It was passed down through the family to me from my father William," she said.

The students were spellbound by the tale. The horrors of the Civil War, where more soldiers were lost than in all wars after combined, were shocking. Even more so was how the story ended with the death of "Pinky" after he and his friend Say were captured and sent to Andersonville Prison.

Polacco asked that the students say Pinkie's name out loud as a remembrance of a brave and kind soul who might otherwise be forgotten in the annals of history.

Closing her book, she then turned to the more pertinent topic of bullying. Polacco told the students she was born with dyslexia and several other learning disorders, therefore having to read aloud at Oakland Technical High School in California was torture.

"I didn't dare have dreams. Reading in class was my nightmare," Polacco said.

She was not alone in the bullying, though. Her friend Frank Oznowicz was also subjected to cruelty for his appearance and intelligence. Polacco said that after graduation, Frank and his father moved to Canada where he met a man named Jim Henson and together they gave the world The Muppets. As Frank Oz, her friend also became the voice of Yoda in Star Wars and has directed many American films and television shows.

At the age of 41, she herself finally overcame her nightmarish view of literature and began to write.

"My son was diagnosed with diabetes and the literature they gave him on how to take care of himself was awful," she recalled.

In an attempt to help him, she rewrote that literature to be something a child could understand. A pharmaceutical company published her work, and the rest, as they say, is history; another win for bullied children.

"When Frank and I (and another bullied pal known today as Tom Hanks) went to a reunion, everyone wanted to know us. As grownups we knew they probably didn't mean to be cruel to us back then, but oh, did we remember them," she said.

She cautioned the students to never laugh at someone who was different because they had no idea how much it could hurt. Polacco instead asked them to be kind, protect those who need it and remember that one day things will all change.

"You kids are going to make a critical difference in this world, especially if you lead with your hearts. Right here today I'm looking at the faces of the future," said Polacco. "I want you to get out there and change this world because this old lady is counting on you."

Teachers in all the schools were as touched by her messages as the students themselves. Gaides shared some of their comments about Polacco's visit where they praised her, not just as a natural born storyteller but as a person, too.

Principal Julie Flynn at Plynouth Elementary School said it was a special day for her students, filled with strong lessons on kindness, human connections, history and hope.

Holderness Central School's Media Specialist Stephanie Finnegan said students approached her all day to say Polacco was the best author who ever visited, adding, "I cannot tell you how many middle school students told me what an impact she had on them."

The next day, HCS teacher Stacy Frizzell also noticed that students not only mingled with one another at all grade levels in the cafeteria, but that no one child sat alone.

"How sweet!" she said.

Through Gaides's grants, each school was also received autographed copies of Polacco's books for their libraries, as well as age-appropriate books for each classroom.

Garnet Hill
Martin Lord Osman
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