Growing up, I decided that I could never be a teacher, that I was much too shy and that I would never have the courage to stand in front of a class.
Little did I know, when my life long dream of making picture books came true, that speaking to students would become an integral part of my career.
How well I remember my first school visit.
It was 1992 and my first book, What Am I? An Animal Guessing Game had just been released. My friend Anne, sharing in my excitement, asked me to read the book to her third-grade class.
The prospect was as appealing to me as swimming with crocodiles.
I said I’d have to think about it, that I didn’t know if I could do it.
“Iza, they’ll love you,” Anne said. After weeks of cajoling she finally persuaded me to go.
The minute I stood in front of the class – wobbly- kneed and dry-mouthed, lightheaded and tight-chested, in that dense, alarming silence broken only by the booming bass notes of my hammering heart – I knew I had made a mistake.
Twenty-five or so sets of expectant eyes stared at me as I squeaked out my name and book title. No, I did not tell them anything about me – that I was a Polish immigrant who had just realized the great American dream, that I was so damn happy I wanted to run in circles around the room like a crazed puppy. I didn’t tell them about the joy and fulfillment of creating the book, of revising the verses, of painting the illustrations.
I stood in front of that class, plagued with shyness, compounded with anxiety – that I had nothing worthwhile to share with them, that these were third-graders, who were reading chapter books and that my picture book would be of no interest to them.
My reading was suddenly interrupted by announcement over the loudspeaker.
During the few moment’s break, a boy from the front row dashed up to me.
“Mrs. Trapani,” he said, “I saw that your hand was shaking as you read to us, and I just want you to know that you don’t have to be nervous around us, because when we heard that you were coming, we were the ones who were nervous to meet a famous author.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“And I want you to know,” he continued exuberantly, “and I speak for all of us (yes, he said it!), that your book is the best book we have ever heard, and that there better be lots of copies of it in the library because all the kids will want to take it out.”
At that point I laughed and thanked him, and I have to say, during the second half of my reading, my voice lowered a few octaves, and my heart slowed from a gallop to a trot. I even had the nerve to stick around and answer the kids’ questions at the end.
Later on, I found out that the little boy, whose name was Matthew, was nicknamed “The Mayor.”
In the ensuing years, I overcame my shyness dramatically. I have done hundreds of school visits, have spoken at national and international conferences, and even presented a keynote to a crowd of twenty-two hundred. I read, sing, draw and ham it up in front of children and adults.
And I can do this because of the warm reception from my listeners, from the early educators who are so passionate about books, and who share that passion with their students, instilling in them a love for words and pictures. I can do this because I know, now, that the children will be excited to hear my stories, and that it doesn’t matter what grade they are in because picture books have timeless appeal.
As for Matthew, that perceptive and kind third-grader of 1992, he must be thirty or so years old now, and I don’t know if he went on to become a mayor, but whatever he is doing, I am sure he is great at it!
Thank you, Matthew, wherever you are!