I love my job most days, but there are some days that really stand out. A couple of weeks ago, I experienced one of those days.

Each spring and fall, Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University hosts a Saturday Reunion where educators from all over the country are invited to participate in inspirational workshops on teaching reading and writing. The Saturday Reunions are amazing events, full of learning and inspiration for and by wonderful teachers. These are free events, open to anyone. They have an opening and closing keynote, and in TCRWP between are powerful workshops given by staff developers and close friends of TCRWP. If you are interested in finding out more information, please visit http://readingandwritingproject.org/services/one-day-events/reunions.

Booksource was happy to sponsor the opening keynote speaker, Patricia Polacco, at this spring’s Saturday Reunion, and I traveled to New York to help escort her around.

Our day started in the lobby of the hotel, where we met before heading over to Riverside Church for her keynote address. Of course, I recognized her right away, with her dark hair gathered into her signature bun. I introduced myself, and we were off! In our cab, we talked about family, her travels the previous month, and the mess that awaited her when she arrived home. A few days before she left on her month-long tour, the pipes in her house burst, causing flooding in her kitchen and other rooms. Although her best friend was looking after the house (and the construction workers), Patricia knew there would be a mess waiting for her when she returned home.

When we arrived at the church, Patricia was taken aback by how beautiful it was. She reminisced about how it looked like churches she had seen in her European travels and was amazed at the intricacies of it all. What an opportunity to see something through the author’s eyes! I loved watching her absorb all of the details in the busy hall.

We sat in the front row waiting for her turn to speak. She spoke to each person who came up to talk to her as if he or she wePatricia Polaccore the most important person in the room. She allowed for pictures and listened to their stories.

As she was introduced, she walked to the front of the over-filled venue and received a standing ovation. She spoke to a completely captivated audience about the heroes of her life. We knew she was an amazing storyteller from her books, but to hear her tell these stories in person was a special treat! She talked about how her heroes were people who impacted the course of her life in some way, whether she knew them for most of her life, or just a little while. She recounted stories from her first hero, her grandmother, imitating her thick Russian accent. After each of her grandmother’s stories, young Patricia would ask, “Grandmother, was that a true story?” Her grandmother would respond, “Of course it true story, but it might not have happened.” Patricia also talked about the real-life Mr. Felker, the teacher who taught her to read at the age of 14 and inspired my favorite Patricia Polacco book, Thank You, Mr. Falker. She described the dramatic impact his attention, caring words and actions had on her life and said, “To this day, when I can’t face something, I feel George Felker’s hand on my back, and I know I can get through it.” I’m sure there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, but my vision was a little blurry at that moment, so I couldn’t tell.

After just under an hour of her stories and the stories behind her stories, she closed by talking about her final heroes. “You teachers and librarians are heroes. You devote your lives to educating the minds of other human beings. You change lives, and often we kids don’t get to thank you. So I am here today to thank you. Thank you for changing our lives.”

Patricia’s next appointment was a 50-minute Q&A session. We walked into a packed room. Not only was every chair full, but the floor as well! She walked to the front of the room, took a seat, and dove right in! When someone asked how she got into writing, Patricia told a story about how they were too poor to buy birthday gifts for her friends when she was invited to a birthday party, so she made them “fat cards.” These were basically wordless picture books that she tied together, and her friends loved them. She didn’t publish her first book until she was 41.

Patricia Polacco

Patricia Polacco speaking at the TCRWP Reunion in NYC.

Patricia also had a chance to talk a little about her disability. She only sees negative space, so as she got further along in school, the space around the words began to shrink and the words became closer together, making it harder and harder for her to decipher the words. She has had to teach herself how to look for the words in the negative space. Art is the only discipline that teaches negative space, possibly explaining her love of art. Patricia was a very talented artist from a young age, and this is what helped her learn to read.

After the Q&A session, Patricia and I were off to sign books. The line was out the door before we even got there. She was scheduled to sign for an hour, have a little lunch and then head to the train station to finally go home. As soon as she saw the line, she said, “I’ll stay as late as I can without missing my train!” Her willingness to skip lunch to greet her fans showed me yet again what a special woman she is.

She took the time to talk to everyone while she was signing. We had to have rules to keep things moving along, but Patricia was kind to everyone. From looking at pictures of someone’s own Rechenka’s eggs, to hearing everyone’s stories about how one of her books touched their lives, she noticed each person. She also liked seeing the different versions of her books that people brought with them from their own classrooms–the Spanish Gracias, Sr. Falker, the well-loved, worn copy of The Keeping Quilt plucked right off the classroom shelf, an unopened copy of G Is for Goat for someone’s soon-to-be-born daughter. She sat at the table signing and posing for pictures (being right next to her, I had my picture taken more than I was prepared for that day!) until the last book had been signed. She finished by signing copies for the TCRWP staff and myself, including a personal note about our time together.

After a warm hug and a quick selfie, Patricia was ready to begin her journey home. “Let me know when that baby comes,” she reminded me as I made sure her luggage got in the back of the car.

Patricia Polacco is such an inspiring person. She is warm and friendly and full of a lifetime of stories. I was honored to spend a whole day with her, and she has now taken her place as one of the heroes of my life.