One by one, the children put a hand over a small rock and made a wish. Author Patricia Polacco cupped her hands over theirs and said to each one, “There you go.”
These were very special wishes, for Polacco had told the second- and third-graders beforehand what they could not wish for: money, toys or changing other people.
“Books,” said Jon Rench. “A new puppy,” said Evan Lotz. “A baby brother,” said Samantha Mattson.
“I wish that I’m extremely lucky every day,” Alec Westenbarger said, explaining, “If, like, I see someone poor and I want them to have a new house, I’m lucky that they get a new house.”
Those were the kinds of wishes Polacco was hoping for, with this very special rock. It was a fragment of a meteorite that landed in her grandparents’ yard one night, long before she was born, and became a legendary wishing rock for their neighbors in Union City, Michigan.
The award-winning author of over 100 children’s books recounted the incident in a day-long visit to Valley View Elementary School. In dramatically telling the true tale of her first book, “Meteor!,” Polacco told students a deeper truth about wishing on a falling star — or for a better world.
“What if somebody is being less than wonderful to you?” she asked them. “What do you do in return to them?”
“Be nice! Be kind!” many students shouted out.
“That’s how you change people, kids,” Polacco said. “You certainly can’t change them with a wish. You change them with your beautiful hearts and how you treat them.”
Tragedy Teaches Hard Lesson
The Michigan author, who gives talks at schools around the country, experienced the kindness and hatred of human hearts in a most traumatic way: at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 children and six staff members were murdered six years ago this month.
Polacco had been an artist-in-residence there prior to the tragedy and knew some of those killed, including 6-year-old Jesse Lewis. The day before the shooting, she gave a talk there and Jesse touched the meteorite. He said he liked how her hair looked. Then he ran off in light-up tennis shoes, with his teacher, Victoria Soto, trailing behind him. A day later, they were both killed in her classroom.
Watching the news on TV, Polacco collapsed and soon underwent open-heart surgery. She later walked the school hallways, trying to understand. She took part in gun-control protests, but no longer believes gun regulations will solve the problem of continued mass school shootings.
“What we need to work on,” she said after her Rockford presentation, “is what you just saw here: making young people understand that there is difference (between students) and to be kind to each other. It’s their hearts we’ve got to work on.”
‘Keep That in Your Hearts’
She worked on students’ hearts at Valley View. All of them had read “Thank You, Mr. Falker,” her award-winning book about a teacher who helped her overcome dyslexia and dysnomia, a disability in recalling words. Recounting how name-calling and bullying made her cry, Polacco urged students to help their neighbors, treat their classmates well, root out “murdering words” and feel good about themselves, disabilities included.
“If anyone in this room is being teased, I want you to know there is absolutely nothing wrong with you,” she told a couple hundred students stuffed into the library. “I believe every single one of you in this room is gifted. The problem is, we don’t all open our gifts at the same time.
“Keep that in your hearts,” she said emphatically. “Be kind, and know how brilliant each one of you is.”
Third-grade teacher Kristin Hubner arranged her visit, with $900 in grant funding from the Rockford Education Foundation and support from Valley View PTO. She said Polacco’s books are her favorites to teach, rich with language and lessons that resonate with students.
“Her stories about being kind and overcoming adversity … we can all relate to that,” Hubner said. After reading “Thank You, Mr. Falker,” students made puzzle pieces that lined the halls, each telling of their personal challenges. The puzzle pieces illustrated how the students are all connected, Hubner said.
“I could spend all day reading them,” Hubner said. “It was magnificent to see the way they reacted to the story.”