How Does That Make You Feel? by James Ponti
One night, as my wife was about to fall asleep, I told her I was thinking of writing a novel. She looked up at me from her pillow and with surprising clarity said, “Shouldn’t you be able to read a book before you try writing one?” This is the danger of being married to a high school teacher. Even semi-conscious, she has the ability to wield truthful biting sarcasm the way Zeus dealt thunderbolts from the top of Olympus.
Up until that point, my career had been devoted to television, writing scripts for the likes of Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, and PBS. Books seemed impossible. Reading had always been a struggle for me. Growing up, I’d been what’s now known as a reluctant reader, but was back in the seventies simply written off as, “being a boy.”
There was a poster on the wall of my first grade classroom and whenever we finished a book, we were supposed to put a star by our name. I hated that poster. By the end of the school year the line next to most names looked like galaxies while mine bore a striking resemblance to the flag of Texas.
A life of writing seemed unlikely until I crossed paths with Herman Prothro. At the time, he was the only male teacher at Atlantic Beach Elementary. But, he wasn’t just a man. He was the man. All through third and fourth grade my friends and I marveled at his baritone voice, that mid-seventies afro, and the coolest moustache we’d ever seen. He was both inspirational and aspirational, the template of what we wanted to become. And in fifth grade he became my teacher.
One day he told us that it was time for his favorite lesson. His enthusiasm was unbridled and I tingled with anticipation. Who knew what wisdom he might impart on us. How to walk tall? How to talk deep? How to grow a moustache before reaching middle school? The possibilities were limitless. And then he said it…
Certainly I’d misheard him. I’d waited years to be in his class. The payoff couldn’t possibly be…poetry! I wasn’t disappointed. I was devastated.
Until I wasn’t. You see, Mr. Prothro didn’t just teach poetry. He preached it. He started with Edgar Allan Poe’s “Annabel Lee.” His voice, the rhythm and the imagery came together like alchemy. Here we were, three blocks from the ocean, and he was talking about “a kingdom by the sea.” I could relate. I could see it. And unlike with books, I could keep up. Poetry was supposed to be read slowly and deliberately. You were supposed to carefully consider every word.
I’d found my foothold.
One day we wrote our own poems and when he collected them he said, “These are your poems and I’m going to read them aloud.” Then he picked up another stack of papers and said, “And these are some of the greatest poems ever written and I’m going to read them too. But first I’m going to mix both piles up so that you won’t be able to tell which one I’m reading from. And after I read a poem, you have to guess who wrote it.”
He shuffled the papers on his podium and placed them where we could not see. Then he started reading in that rich deep voice of his:
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
There were a couple of key hints for us to consider. First of all, it was really good. Secondly, snow was prominently featured. Since we all lived in Florida, it was a safe bet this was the handiwork of one of the great poets he’d told us about. We started guessing them until we got it right.
“Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost.”
“Yes,” he said. “Robert Frost. ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.’”
Then he read:
This is Pat
He owns a cat
It’s really fat
How ‘bout that?
This sounded like the poetry of a ten-year-old boy, so we guessed each other’s names until we stumbled across the right answer. And so it went until he read my poem. It was called “Stars” and when he was done he asked the class, “Who wrote “Stars?”
A girl raised her hand and answered, “William Shakespeare.” It was, at least in my memory, the only time someone guessed an actual writer for one of our poems.
Mr. Prothro beamed when he told everyone, “No, it was written by James.” Then he looked at me and for a moment it was as if we were the only two people in the room.
“Imagine that, James,” said the coolest person I’d ever known. “Someone thinks a poem you wrote was written by the greatest writer in history. How does that make you feel?”
It was in that moment, in the Fall of 1976 on Sherry Drive in Atlantic Beach, Florida that I decided to be a writer. I can honestly say that not once since that day have I ever changed my mind. I have loved being a writer in all its different stages. Writing has taken me to more than thirty states and a half-dozen countries. I’ve met incredible people and written for newspapers, magazines and television shows. And, (with the enthusiastic support of my wife who, once she was fully rested, was nothing but encouraging) I’ve become an author of middle grade fiction.
A great part of being a middle grade author is visiting schools. Whenever I do I tell them about the poster and the stars to make sure that even those who struggle with reading know that they still can find a way to tell their story. And I always tell them the story of Mr. Prothro and how he changed my life.
Earlier this year, I received the exciting news that the Mystery Writers of America had nominated my book Framed! for the Edgar Award for best juvenile mystery novel. The award was named after Edgar Allan Poe and on the afternoon of the announcement I thought back to the first time I’d heard his name. It was when Mr. Prothro read “Annabel Lee” to the class.
It felt like I had come full circle from the boy who could barely read a book to one who was being celebrated for writing one. And that’s when I realized what I had to do. I’d told the story of Mr. Prothro to thousands of students across the country. But that’s when I realized that I needed to tell it to him.
With some intrepid sleuthing (after all, I am an Edgar-nominated mystery writer) I was able to locate him and after a few phone calls I found myself sitting in the front room of a house in Jacksonville, Florida with a long since retired teacher. I gave him my books and caught him up on the lives of students that he hadn’t seen for more than forty years.
I told him the story of that day and what he meant to me. I told him how he’d been my role model. And after we’d both laughed and cried, I finally answered the question he’d asked me forty-one years ago. The one I’d been too tongue-tied to answer as a ten-year-old.
“Someone thinks a poem you wrote was written by the greatest writer in history,” he’d said. “How does that make you feel?”
James Ponti is the author of the Dead City trilogy and the Framed! mystery series, which features twelve-year old Florian Bates and his best friend Margaret who consult for the FBI using TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things. The first book in the series Framed! was nominated for a 2017 Edgar as best juvenile mystery and the second, Vanished! will be published by Aladdin on August 22, 2017. You can find James online at http://www.jamesponti.com or on Twitter as @JamesPonti.