A wise person once said, "Everybody is smart in different ways. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its life believing it is stupid." This message is at the heart of Lynda Mullaly Hunt's new book, Fish in A Tree.
Who doesn't remember sixth grade and all the trials and tribulations that came with it? For Ally Nickerson, sixth grade is intolerable because of her inability to read, but everything might change when Mr. Daniels becomes her new teacher.
Just like Ally, math was my strong area and I struggled with reading and spelling. I remember being in first and second grade, sitting in a circle, where each student had to read one line in whatever story we were reading. I used to dread having to sit there, waiting for my turn. I would count the sentences to figure out which one I would be asked to read. I would practice it over and over in my head so I would be ready. I had no idea what the other students were reading to the class because I was focused on getting all the words right in my own sentence. And it would never fail, as the student next to me read the sentence I practiced, I would realize I counted wrong. My stomach would lurch and then it would be my turn and I would have to read in front of the class. And always, there was at least one challenging word in the new sentence, the one I hadn't practiced.
It didn't help that I was in the lowest reading group. They never told you that in school, but just as Jeff Kinney stated in a Diary of A Wimpy Kid, you could always figure it out based on the cover of your book. The title of my reading book was Bears. The other group had Balloons. Their cover showed hot air balloons floating high in the sky. I suppose you can guess what my cover had on it. Let's just say that bears hibernate in the winter. It didn't take a genius to figure out which group had the higher expectations and which one didn't.
Fortunately for me, however, my learning disability was caught in second grade. In third grade, I had a teacher who saw past what I couldn't do and saw what I had the potential to achieve. She encouraged my love for writing. She was the first person to teach me about first drafts and not to worry about the spelling, which allowed me to use vocabulary that was much higher than my grade level because I didn't have to worry if the words were correct. She was the one who showed me how to make revisions to my story and correct the spelling at that point. She was also the one who promised to help me turn my work into a real book. Like Mr. Daniels (the new teacher who Ally encounters in Fish in A Tree), my teacher believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. And just like the scene in the book when Mr. Daniels is out of school one day, my teacher was out on the day I was supposed to read my story in front of the class for a critique. And after all these years, I could still relate to the way Ally felt that day when the substitute did things differently than the way Mr. Daniels would have done it.
My third grade teacher helped me discover that my writing could be more than just a hobby. I could turn my work into real books. With her help, the guidance of my other teachers who saw my potential along the way, and of course the support of my family, I decided to go into the field of education and inspire others the way my teachers did. I understood what it was like to struggle in school. I know what it is like to want to prove yourself, and not just to others. In fourth grade, a friend learned that I only had to complete half of the homework assignments. What she didn't know was that the shortened assignments would take me double or triple the time to complete. I remember how my friend questioned it and how it made me think twice about it as well. So I started completing the full assignments because I wanted to prove to myself (and no one else) that I could do everything everyone else could do.
I was surprised that after so many years that Fish in A Tree could take me back to my own struggles and triumphs from those early years of schooling. Ally Nickerson's character was accurate to my own feelings in school and Mr. Daniels was true to the teachers who inspired me.
Over the years, I struggled with questions about my own writing. I wondered if my stories were good enough, if I had something worth saying, if I was capable of even writing something people would want to read. I know these concerns are normal for writers but I also know these questions are something more for me. They come from that young student who used to practice sentences before having to read in front of the class. So when rejections come in, they hurt, as all rejections do, but they also take me back to the place that maybe I am just not good enough.
But as Lynda Mullaly Hunt says in her letter to readers, "Things will not always be easy; sometimes we do fail. But it isn't failing that makes you a failure. It 's staying down that does."
So with that in mind, I continue to write, revise, and submit. Because I am a writer, and just as my teacher said all those years ago, someday my stories will be turned into a real book.
If you know a student who is struggling in school, Fish in A Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt is the book for them. It is not just for students either. Teachers and parents would benefit from reading this book as well. Thank you Lynda Mullaly Hunt for another moving book with a powerful message.