Fish in a Tree BookLynda Mullaly Hunt One for the MurphysGuest Post by Lynda Mullaly Hunt, author of Fish in a Tree and One for the Murphys

There is inspiration everywhere for writers who are willing to see. My inspiration for my books tends to come from my most vulnerable times in my young life.

It’s actually a bit ironic that I would grow up to be a published author. I entered kindergarten without having owned my own book and never having been read to before. So, as a young student I was unfamiliar with my letters and the rules of phonics. I was placed in the lowest reading group in first grade. A myriad of things kept me there until the end of elementary school.

As a kid, I was told by a couple of teachers that I was too stupid to amount to anything. Gratefully, I didn’t necessarily buy into it. Yet, I felt like those expectations put me in a hole that I didn’t know how to climb out of.

My fifth grade teacher never asked me for an assignment the entire year. Most kids would think this a gift, but I didn’t. I was smart enough to know what it meant. It meant that he thought it didn’t matter. I remember sitting at our dining room table turning the pages of my siblings’ high school textbooks wondering what would become of me.

Enter Mr. Christy, my sixth grade teacher. He looked beyond my don’t-expect-much-here reputation. He looked beyond the disheveled student who stared out the window. And he gave me the greatest gift that no other teacher had ever bothered to. He set high expectations.

I was not a reader or writer but I was pretty good at math. So, he arranged for me to tutor first-graders. Which, of course, would have been academically easy for most anyone. But, he trusted me. He saw me. And I worked very hard, taking the time to create activities and assignments for my students.

He gave me an award for poetry which I knew I didn’t deserve. My work was underwhelming, I knew. In fact, it didn’t even rhyme as it was supposed to. But I appreciated his kindness. Even as a kid, I knew he was trying to buoy me.

I was quiet enough in reading groups that I sometimes wonder how he knew I could do better. Was it just a gamble when he handed me a book entitled Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, telling me he wanted me to go home and read it?

I gave him the type of response I’d learned to give. “Why should I?”

He leaned in, looked me in the eye, and responded, “Because I think you can. And I want you to try.”

The thing was, I would have read anything in the world he asked me to read. Just because he cared enough to ask.

I did a diorama on that book worthy of the Smithsonian. It was far beyond anything I’d ever done for school before. When he locked eyes with me and said, “I’m proud of you, Lynda,” I couldn’t respond. I had no words. I remember he laughed a little and said, “You know it’s customary to say thank you when someone compliments you.” I still had no words.  

I didn’t thank him at the end of the year, although I was heart-broken to leave. I guess it didn’t occur to me. Or perhaps I was too shy. Or perhaps I didn’t understand the significance of what he’d done for me, standing right in the middle of it still.

While I was a sophomore at The University of Connecticut, I saw Mr. Christy at a restaurant called AC Petersen Farms which figures prominently in the book. (The three main characters, Ally, Albert, and Keisha sit in that same booth many times.) I went over, and he immediately knew who I was. Remembered my name. I told him I’d been studying to be a teacher and doing well. He smiled without showing teeth and gave a single, emphatic nod. “Of course you are,” he said, clearing his throat. “Of course you are.”

“It’s because of you,” I said. “I want to be the kind of teacher that you are.”

“Oh, thank you,” he said, looking down at the table and rearranging his silverware. When he looked back up, he asked about my older brother, Ricky, who had also been his student. That was Mr. Christy—not one to take credit when he so clearly deserved it.

It’s funny how oblivious a writer can be sometimes. I was almost done with the first draft of FISH IN A TREE before realizing how much of me was actually in it. Before realizing that it is a love letter to Mr. Christy and all the teachers like him. Yes, he helped me academically but the true gift was that he held up a mirror. Every. Single. Day. That said, “Here is one great kid.”

It’s easy to like and praise the kids who are respectful, work hard, and excel. But it is often the kids who don’t do those things who really need their teachers. Because, sometimes a kid has no emotional net at home and the messages they get at school become vital. I truly believe he saved me. In fact, I know he did.

I often wonder how many teachers out here are saving kids every day. Even the smallest act can loom large in a child’s heart. There are countless teachers out there who are champions for kids every single day. They are saving lives. And many don’t even realize it.