October 02


Sitting On My Brains by Kenneth Kraegel

All the good teachers I have ever had have a place in my memory, a kind of pantheon. They are people who I admire and taught me a lot, each in their own way. Here I will write about Mr. Downey, because his wise intervention with me was so concise and is easily told in this essay, but there were plenty of other greats as well.


In junior high things were not looking good, but I didn’t know it. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t keep my mouth shut, I was dizzy in love with one girl after another, and annoying to just about every adult in my life. I was on the basketball team, wrestling team, and track team, not because I enjoyed them or was even interested in sports, it just seemed to me like one way I could possibly get noticed by the girls.


I don’t think I was a major problem in most classes, I just maintained a perpetual level of mid-grade disruption. For example, my friend and I discovered that if you took the ink cartridge out of a certain kind of pen and blew into it gently, it whistled, making an irritating high-pitched wheeze. He and I had health class together. In that class we didn’t have desks, but sat in chairs arranged in a circle. My friend and I would sit across the circle from each other. Whenever the teacher wasn’t looking in our direction we would make the whistling noise. Eventually it would drive her nuts and she would spin around and around, trying to figure out who was making the noise. She never did figure it out. We thought it was hilarious.


That was how I was spending my time in my classes, so I was worried when, in English class, Mr. Downey said, “Class is dismissed. Mr. Kraegel, I would like to talk to you.” I liked Mr. Downey, he had some gravitas about him, the kind of person you hoped would like you. After all the students had filed out of the room he continued, “Mr. Kraegel, I need to turn in your eligibility report for the wrestling team. I could give you a D- and you could stay on the team, but I have decided to give you an F and you’ll be off the team. Do you know why? Because you are sitting on your brains, Kraegel, you are sitting on your brains.”


His words hit me in a strange way. I was getting a talking-to by a teacher, something I was used to, but this was different. Mr. Downey was telling me to shape up, but he was also saying that he believed in me, he thought I had brains! Before he let me go, he asked me what I was going to do for an upcoming writing project – something I hadn’t thought much about. He explained the assignment to me and we agreed on something that I could do. I remember leaving that classroom feeling pretty good, a little confused, but good.


I don’t remember being at all disappointed to be off the wrestling team, in fact I was probably relieved. I hadn’t really ever gotten the hang of wrestling and the coach yelled a lot. But I really poured myself into that project for Mr. Downey, wanting to prove to him that yes, he was right, I did have brains! And then, to my surprise, I found myself enjoying the work, it was actually pretty interesting. I don’t remember what my grade was, but for the rest of the school year I really gave it my all in English class and I have never forgotten his vote of confidence.


These days I am seeing educators from a different perspective – as a parent of a student and my gratitude for them has only increased. I could say I don’t know how they do it, but I won’t say that I don’t know why they do it. I think I understand why every time I am in the school. There is no question in my mind that it is a tough job. I hope this post can be a reminder to any educator reading this, that there are many of us who are very grateful and indebted to them for their work – even if it takes us a few decades to realize it.


This is a print I made in seventh grade art class. It nicely captures how things were going for me in middle school.


Kenneth Kraegel is a self-taught illustrator and the creator of the picture books King Arthur’s Very Great Grandson, which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Children’s Book of the Year and a Wall Street Journal Best Book of the Year; The Song of Delphine; and Green Pants which was a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best selection and an International Literary Association Children’s Choice. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his family. His newest picture book Wild Honey from the Moon comes out in November.