I met Maurice Sendak, or rather his books, when I was about 19. I was doing a teaching internship in the classroom of Daniel Baron, who would become one of most important mentors, along with being a good friend. I did a stint in a four-year-old classroom with Daniel.
It was at a point in my life where I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I didn’t want to continue on my course of study for nursing. I made a bunch of money working in the steel mill in the summertime, I was thinking of just taking some time out, taking a year off to explore my options. After all, my dad worked in the mill and it turned out to be a good career for him. He and my mom – on a school teacher’s salary – raised 7 kids. Maybe the mill wasn’t such a bad thing.
I was talking to my university advisor at the time, Mary Nessler, and she suggested that I take an internship in an early childhood classroom. But not just any classroom. She would check to see if Daniel had an opening in his class. He did. It saved me.
It wasn’t just what Daniel did with kids that made me love teaching, it was who he was with children. He was careful, loving, gentle, emotional, kind. He let kids be kids. And he invited me into his world of rich, joyful teaching and learning. We were friends right from the start. When he saw something cool that a child had done, he immediately shared it with me. When there was something funny, he’d look over their heads at me and share a secret smile.
When I made some blunder or had underestimated the kids by talking down to them, he asked a well-placed question or simply gave me things to think about. He taught me the difference between convergent questions (ones in which I was seeking a single specific answer) and divergent ones (questions with opportunities to think broadly and creatively). He took the time to nurture his students – and I include myself in that number. Because he assumed, way before I did, that I was to become a teacher.
And he read books, and books, and books to the children. He taught me the power of reading to and with kids. He showed me how to lay the foundation for literacy by loving books and characters and authors right out loud. I guess I wasn’t aware of the power of books written for little children until I fell in with Daniel.
It was in his class of four year olds that I first heard and fell in love with Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree (which would later become my first real present for my crush Heidi Mills). Daniel invited us to laugh at the antics of The Cat In The Hat and that crazy Sam I Am from Green Eggs and Ham. He invited us to enjoy the rich, fun language of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish and many others by The Good Doctor.
But two books became my favorites while listening to Daniel read. There’s a Nightmare in My Closet, by Mercer Mayer and Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak became staples in my early childhood classrooms for many years. When Daniel roared his terrible roars and gnashed his terrible teeth when reading Wild Things I was as captivated as the kids. When he helped the kids sort out reality and fantasy and helped them to understand that it’s OK and even fun to be a little bit scared in the stories we read because we know they are not real – he gave me a lesson that lives with me today as I read books aloud to children and I share in literature study with other important books.
Daniel and I shared cards and letters for a while, but then, for the reasons (read excuses) that many of us have… busy lives, more responsibilities, too much time has passed, etc., etc., etc. We stopped corresponding years ago. But the lessons I learned in that long ago and far away early childhood classroom at Hoosier Courts Preschool still linger. What a blessing that my councilor made sure that I was placed with Daniel.
You know how crossing the path of one person can alter your life? I’ll bet that is true for almost all of us. A teacher, a lover, a childhood friend, a minister, an author, a neighbor. There are people in all of our lives who move us into a different direction, nudge us toward (or away from) something very important. Heidi Mills is the obvious one for me. Who knows where I’d be…
But Daniel was one of those people too.
On a related note, Heidi came across this little interview with Maurice Sendak on Facebook and shared it with me. I loved this man. A Kiss for Little Bear, Chicken Soup With Rice, In the Night Kitchen, Let’s Be Enemies, Mr. Rabbit and the Lovely Present, What Do You Say Dear? and, of course, Where the Wild Things Are were some of my most important teaching resources when I taught very littles.
Give yourself a treat. Watch and listen.