“When you come from a family of storytellers, you’re doomed. You just have to tell stories.” Children’s author/illustrator Patricia Polacco shared some of her life stories with middle school students from Redwood Day School in Oakland.
The author of such beloved stories as The Keeping Quilt, and Chicken Sunday, which takes place on College Ave in Oakland, lived in Oakland for 41 years. She attended Willard Jr. High School and Oakland Tech.
Yet surprisingly, she did not learn to read until she was 14. Polacco told the students that even now, reading out-loud in front of an audience conjures up memories of the days when she was forced to stand at the front of the class and try to read. She still remembers how the students would make fun of her.
At that time, Polacco did not know that she has learning differences. “I could walk into anyone’s home one time and draw a three-dimensional architectural plan of the inside of their home from memory, but I could not add up a column of numbers.” Polaco told her audience that she thought that she was just stupid. One teacher in high school helped change her self-image and understanding of how she learned. He kept her afterschool to help clean the black boards. He asked her to sponge down the boards in the shape of certain letters of the alphabet. When she couldn’t do it, he told her she was not stupid but had learning differences.
With his help, Patricia Polacco did learn to read and write, but did not embark upon her writing career until age 41. “Before that I was a full time mother, sitting behind the wheel of car for what felt like 24 hours a day.”
Yet Patricia has not forgotten the children who made fun of her when she was at Willard Jr. High. She asked the Redwood Day School students, “ Maybe one of you can enlighten me, but I just don’t understand why it is so hard to be kind to one another?”
“Be kind to one another. You may need each other when you are older. Maybe someone in this very room will find the cure for cancer or figure out how to feed the hungry. There are children your age right here in Oakland who go to bed every night hungry. Maybe you will figure out how to change that.”
A student asked her if all her stories are about her family or people she knows. “All stories have to start here,” said Polacco pointing to her heart. “They may wander out and away from you but they always must make their way back to you.”
In the book she read to the group, Pink and Say, her great grand father got to shake the hand of President Lincoln when he was a soldier in the Civil War. Polacco invited all the children to shake her hand as they left. “Come shake the hand, that shook the hand that shook the hand of President Abraham Lincoln. Every middle school student waited patiently in line to be a part of that legacy.