Daily Archives: June 11, 2015

Should I Take Up the Banjo? or The Question of Charisma

I’d already been thinking about the issue of teacher charisma when I saw Paula Willey’s terrific BEA write-up in which she, after seeing some especially entertaining authors, wondered:

What do you do if you’re not a natural speaker? Or if you freeze up on stage? In fact, I imagine that most authors are more the cave-dwelling cheeseater type than the camp counselor type. (Literally – a lot of authors honed their public speaking skills as camp counselors or teachers.) It’s not fair, and all I can suggest is – learn to play the banjo.

Sorry, lovely Paula, but I disagree. I realize I’m probably swimming upstream without a paddle, but I try to think deep within me that I can be a good teacher, good author, and good critic without the ability to entertain in public. For I very much will admit — it is not something I can do. Entertain in public, that is. (I think I do a pretty good job entertaining in print, say here. That is something quite different.) While I am very comfortable speaking in public when the focus is on what I’m speaking about rather than on ME, I dislike intensely the focus being on me. I am not the sort of teacher who happily will spend the day at school dressed as a cow (as one of my colleagues did this year for a fundraising thing), play the goofy ‘bad” kid in a skit with colleagues at an assembly, or otherwise do stuff that focuses attention on me. In other words, charismatic (in the magnetic dynamic personality sense) is not me.

I suspect there is something of that going on for book creators. When I first met Jon Scieszka he was still teaching at a school close to mine. And I bet he was the sort of teacher who loved dressing as a cow. Mr. Charisma. Don’t get me wrong — I think teachers and book creators who enjoy this sort of thing are great fun. Some of my dearest friends are wonderful at this. I adore Jon and Mac and love nothing more than watching them at play. But I don’t think they are the standard that we teachers and book creators need to aspire to. Rather, I think we need to recognize differences. Those like me who detest being in the spotlight should not contort themselves into trying to do so. Frankly, I can think of nothing worse than watching an unhappy book creator on stage playing the banjo (me, you really, really, really don’t want to see that — it would be squirm-inducing painful).

I think and hope that there is still room for those of us who teach/create and do the stuff and then stand back and let it do the work. The books and the assignments. Me, I adored Battle Bunny all by itself.  In fact, I have never experienced Jon and Mac doing their staged reading of it. Sure, I’d enjoy doing so, but I have had just as much fun reading the book aloud with my students taking an active role.

As a contrast to Jon and Mac, Let me offer one huge example — Suzanne Collins. Know who she is? None other than the creator of The Hunger Games.  I don’t see her on the conference circuit shooting arrows a la her protagonist or similarly entertaining the legions of Hunger Game fans. Note the difference. I didn’t write “Suzanne Collins’ fans.” Indeed, her books, her characters, her stories are doing just fine without her having to be up front and center. So can I just make a plea for us shyer types — don’t push us to do what we can’t do. Instead, appreciate us for what we can do. Charisma is a personality trait, something that isn’t required, I don’t think, for success.

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