I had the privilege this past week of being invited to speak to over 100 sixth-grade English language arts students and their teachers at the Hillsboro Middle School about writing, and why it’s so important to learn to be a good writer.
We talked about the joy and historical importance of writing letters, keeping diaries, painting with words, and poetry. We talked about the value of letters and diaries over time and how they differ with text messaging, emailing and tweeting. I asked the students about what some of the benefits of letter writing might be and one student responded by saying “the anticipation,” and I asked the anticipation of what? He said of what the person you wrote to might say back to you. While not many raised their hands when I asked who kept diaries, I was impressed by those who had recently written letters.
Because I have a granddaughter who is the same age as the students I was speaking to, I shared with them a writing project that she did last year to emphasize the importance of the written word for the sake of posterity. She spent hours listening to her 95-year-old great-grandfather tell tales of his World War II naval experiences at sea in the Pacific, everything from having to take salt-water showers, witnessing the Hiroshima explosion from miles out at sea from Japan, the embarrassment of being on night watch and hailing the captain after sighting an enemy submarine that turned out to be a whale, to taking a bullet from a kamikaze fighter plane and spending days in a naval hospital in Hawaii. She listened, then wrote and published it all in a “Shutterfly” book that became a family best seller and will likely be read for generations to come. Put all that in a text and tomorrow it sublimates into the ether, gone forever.
I was impressed by the attentiveness, the engagement, and the curiosity of the students. One young man said he wanted to write a novel but was having trouble maintaining the level of action and excitement he wanted, and asked if I had any advice. I tried to help. Another young lady asked if I received much support from my family during the writing process. Such sophisticated questions.
I read them some excerpts from the beginning of a novel I’d written called “The Extraordinary Tale of Nathan Turner,” about a 15-year-old boy from Hillsboro, Ohio, and then asked them to use their imagination to come up with what might happen in the next 300 pages. Creativity blossomed with wonderfully imagined narratives.
The only question that caught me off-guard was the one about how old I was when I wrote my first novel. The answer to that will remain a secret between them and me.
All to say, it was a wonderful morning spent with some inspiring young students from what is clearly an impressive school with some dedicated teachers. Hillsboro should be proud of its school system and its school facilities. We held our session in the new school auditorium. What a gorgeous facility. I hope area residents will have an opportunity to see it sometime soon, whether it be a theater production, a choral or band production, or just in passing on a parent-teacher evening. You’ll be amazed and proud.
Nothing is more important to a town or a city than the quality of its schools — ask your local real estate agent — and Hillsboro has one of the best.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.