This past November, I was in the back of a large session room at NCTE. I was planning on attending the next two sessions that were held in that room. In fact, I was talking with the presenter of the session of the one after the one we were about to experience about a gameplan to make quick changes to the environment to fit her and her colleague’s presentation more suitably.
Many people were coming in and out, and, as I can’t help but do, I would glance up at just about each and every one of them. Nearly all walked on by without noticing my existence. Some made quick eye contact and we exchanged a smile or a quick “hello.” Hugs were given to those whom I knew (and likely hadn’t seen in months — if ever!).
Then one woman came in, and she was looking around the space really quickly, as if she wasn’t sure this was the room she was supposed to be in. You know the look. A quick glance side-to-side, eyes scanning. Totally in control, yet also questioning, seeking. As I was looking up, she caught my eyes, and asked me if this was such and such a room. I told her that no, it wasn’t, but that room was nearby, and I gave her directions. She thanked me, and walked to the room she was looking for.
I looked back up at Jillian Heise and Beth Shaum, with whom I was talking. Something had happened. Their voices stopped working. Their jaws stopped working! They just stared at me, mouths agape. What had I done? Did I give terrible directions?
“Do you know who that was?”
“Who, that woman?”
“Brian. That was Nancie Atwell.”
WHAT. NO. I had just seen her speak earlier this year! Surely I would recognize one of the greatest minds of English language arts education. . .right? I mean, I use the methods espoused In The Middle and Lessons that Change Writers nearly every day in my instruction! Her books remain standards for language arts education, 10, 20, and 30 years after their initial publication dates. She has inspired an entire generation of teachers, changing the lives of hundreds of thousands if not millions of children across the United States — across the world!
And all I had to say to her was, “It’s around the corner to the right.”
In some ways, I’m glad I didn’t recognize her. I’m sure she is used to being a celebrity at NCTE, and it must have been nice to just ask for directions and get them, and not have a 20 minute discussion about how she changed someone’s life. But she did. She’s changed so many lives.
And somehow, she’s the one who thanked me.
No, Ms. Atwell. Thank you. Thank you for everything.
Today, Nancie Atwell was awarded the first-ever Global Teacher Prize. I can’t imagine a more deserving educator. She plans to donate her entire prize — $1M USD — to the school she founded. That is the level of her dedication to her students. Could she use the money? I don’t know. Could the school use the money? Probably. But just the fact that she’s already decided to make that donation, to invest back in education, tells me of the type of woman she is. This woman, in control, yet questioning, seeking answers.