Girls and boys and lessons in optimism

Early into the school shutdowns this past spring, I got reassured by the two girls next door. Not missing a beat, Caroline began Zooming ballet, younger Julia hip hop. Caroline took violin, Julia the clarinet, and both took piano - also virtually. While I doubted this to be as effective as in-person learning, I was much impressed by their resilience, enthusiasm and optimism.

I pondered all this more, weeks later. News of the California fires brought video of adults and children bustling about the library in King City, offered as a daytime shelter for folks driven from their homes. I spoke at that library some years back, and was given an indelible memory.

In the Salinas Valley, King City is Ground Zero John Steinbeck country. He set his famous "East of Eden" in its surrounds. On a book trip ("book tour" is too grand a term for the haphazard push conducted by such a non-Steinbeck, non-contender, as me), I was invited to speak at their library. I'm a former Hinsdale library trustee and am honored most when I'm asked to speak at libraries. This time, though, would be much different.

Pulling up front, I saw that its windows were covered by notebook paper, hand-drawn, one letter to a sheet, obviously by kids: "WELCOME JACK FREDRICKSON FAMOUS AUTHOR." Clearly they'd not gotten the word that I was the definitive non-Steinbeck - a most assuredly not-famous writer.

Another difference waited inside. Normally, my events would barely fill a phone booth. Not this time. The place was packed. And not just packed, but packed with kids - the kids who'd done that hand-lettering. Their parents were there, too. Dressed in worn jeans and plaid shirts, they stood jammed behind the children seated on the floor.

I changed the usual talk about crime fiction I aim at adult audiences, and kept it short and generic, leaving plenty of time for questions.

And boy, did those kids have questions. And right off, it became apparent they weren't there for me, per se. They were there to see an "author" - any author would have suited them. One child asked if my books had pictures; another queried whether I made a lot of money. Questions came fast for over an hour and then it was over, and the kids and their parents filed out.

It was what the librarians said afterward that cemented the memory, though. The parents were agricultural workers, up at dawn to work the fields in the Central Valley. But that day - that very day - school bus service had been suspended for budgetary reasons and those kids had to be driven to school, way earlier than usual, by their parents and somehow picked up by who-knew-whom that afternoon.

Yet it was those kids, the librarians went on - those engaged, attentive, questioning kids - who thought it important, even amid such chaos, to come to see someone simply because he was an author. Undeterred, just as they'd planned.

Resilience, enthusiasm and optimism amid chaos. It's much to admire in the girls next door; much to admire in the girls and boys of King City; much to admire, perhaps, in most kids.

And maybe it's something to summon up in cloudy times like these, from what we adults used to be before we got so grown up.

- Jack Fredrickson of Hinsdale

is a contributing columnist.

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