According to this morning's Writer's Almanac, it's the birthday of Gertrude Chandler Warner, who was born in Connecticut in 1890, a first-grade teacher who got sick one morning and couldn't go to school. Sweetly, for us at least, she stayed home and came up with an idea--what if a bunch of kids, all by themselves, take refuge in an abandoned boxcar? What if they have to find a way to live all by themselves--without parents or protectors? What if they're left on their own to figure out what they're going to do?
The result of one of the most fortuitous sick days in the history of employment was a series of 19 books about "the boxcar children"--four kids whose parents die and who don't much care for the grandfather who becomes their would-be protector. They run away and find refuge in a boxcar, where they set up their life, on their own, no adults anywhere to be seen.
Sometimes these days I wonder if those books wouldn't be just as thrilling to college students as they were to me, years ago, when I first heard my fourth-grade teacher read them in class. The truth is, Warner's books were frowned upon by some adults way back when because those children appeared to be having too much fun outside the watchful eyes of adults and parents. These days, when I hear helicopter parents thwack-thwacking through the hallways of the college where I teach, I wonder whether some of my parentally-beseiged students--even though they're a whole decade older--might not just as dreamily entertain the idea of boxcar kids as I did when I was ten.
But I digress. Mention of Warner's boxcar children brings me back to one of the very first moments in my life when a story literally swept me away. Story-time was after lunch and the long recess, when we were still sweaty from basketball or football or whatever it was we were playing. We'd come in, take our seats, and she'd read from The Boxcar Children.
I can't really point at that experience as the moment I knew I would be a writer. Nope--it didn't happen that way. But when I opened up the Writer's Almanac this morning and discovered it was Ms. Warner's birthday, I remembered moments I might well have otherwise forgotten--classroom moments when I imagined those kids in the boxcar, living on their own. Just after lunch, hearing their story, feeling their independence, was sheer joy.
Good stories take us away to another place, another time. For twenty minutes or so, I stepped out of the classroom and hung around with four kids in a boxcar I created in my mind.
Right then, of course, I was far too young to be thinking of what I wanted to be when I grew up--thank goodness. When I heard The Boxcar Children, what enchanted me is simply what might be.
Today, it's Ms. Warner's birthday, and, when I remember those precious moments long ago, I've got to confess that it may well be something of mine, too.