3 Ways To Inspire Students On School Visits

My chief mission on school visits is to inspire students to dream big and believe their dreams can come true.  When I volunteered in schools, I discovered that many students had no dreams beyond going to school every day.  They didn’t connect the present to the future.  They didn’t realize that doing well in school now could make possible a great life in the future.  In the process of working with the students I learned that first and foremost they needed someone to believe in them.  Someone to tell them they were smart.  Someone to encourage them to believe that they could do great things in life.

Now when I visit with students to talk about my books, regardless of whether they are in elementary, middle, or high school, I try to connect with them before I even mention my books.  I do this by:

1) Telling My Story – I let them know that on the way to achieving dreams there will be setbacks.  But they shouldn’t let those challenges deter them from their dreams.  They should keep their dreams in sight and forge ahead regardless of the difficulties they encounter.  I share with them the rejections I received and all the great things that have happened because I didn’t give up when I received rejection letters.

2) Engaging Them – I actually try to talk to students individually.  I love talking to small groups of students.  In small settings I can ask questions and get feedback on how they think.  I also ask about their dreams for the future.  In small groups students feel free to share their hopes and dreams.  In large groups it never fails that some students will laugh at a particular student’s dream that has been shared.  I let students know that they matter.  And I encourage them to dream big dreams for their lives.

3) Talking About The Story Behind My Books – In my books I tell stories about ordinary people who achieved extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived.  I do this to let students know that they too can make a difference in the world.

By the time I read one of my books or an excerpt from one, I have captured their attention and hopefully inspired a few to see beyond their present circumstances and dream of a better life.

I recently saw the following comment that a college student had written online about my first book, Uncle Jed’s Barbershop.

“When I first read this book way back in elementary school I loved it and still do.   I am a college sophomore now.  The first day I got this book I met Margaree King Mitchell and she was so nice.  She had come to our school to have a book signing and she wrote ‘Never Give Up On Your Dreams’ in my book.  I’m following that dream by going to college.”

Needless to say, this made my day.  And it makes what I’m doing worthwhile.  If I can just touch a few students (although I hope to touch all) and convince them that they can be and do anything they desire in life, then I am fulfilling my mission.

Grove Photos

 

The Real People In The Park

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Every morning I walk in a park similar to the one in The People In The Park.  The horseshoe-shaped walking trail is 3 miles.  Set in a small college town near Kansas City, the park borders the Missouri River on one side and railroad tracks on the other.  On the other side of the railroad tracks is the college.

I first saw the park while attending a concert at the college.  Lush green trees created the perfect backdrop for the river.  It seemed so peaceful.  I just had to walk there!  At the time I was walking in another beautiful setting at a community college.  But it paled in comparison to the serene waters of the river.  First I walked in this oasis once a week.  Then two times a week.  Soon I had to be there every day.  So every morning I make the 10 mile trek to the park to start my day in a beautiful inspiring setting.

In spring the sweet smell of newness fills the air.  In summer the park is filled with children, walkers, students, and festivals.  In fall the bright colors of the leaves create a kaleidoscope.  In winter the trees are barren but the water in the river still flows.

Stately black wrought iron benches line the trail and face the river. I never saw anyone sitting on the benches.  So I started bringing a book and after I finished walking I’d sit on a bench and read, or think, or plan my day.

I was fascinated when I first started walking there.  Everybody seemed to know everybody.  They would walk awhile and stop to chat when they met up on the trail.  Belong long people would stop and want to know what I was reading.  That’s how my relationship with the people in the park started.  Through books.  Sometimes I had a novel.  Other times an inspirational book.  Through books I learned about the people in the park.  What they believed.  What they wanted out of life.  Their celebrations.  Their heartache.  Their pain.  They shared with me their life stories.  Now I know the people in the park and am considered one of them.

I’ve had interesting conversations with the people in the park.  There are interesting people who walk there.  For instance, there is a former member of the Platters singing group.  He proudly brought me newspaper articles about him.  So fascinating.  He models now.  When he got a commercial he shared the news.  He was proud to be a spokesperson for a bank.  When the print ad came out, he brought me a copy.  I shared in his joy.

An opera singer.  A playwright.  Teachers.  A former professional football player.  Entrepreneurs.  Doctors.  Parents of students at the Air Force Academy.  I’ve met them all.

Couples get married.  Birthday parties.  Family gatherings.  Company picnics.  Concerts.  It all happens in the park.

When my book, The People In The Park, was published, word spread through the park like wildfire.  The most frequently asked question I received was, “Am I in it?”   I answered, “No.”  The reactions were either disappointment or joy.

One day I was sitting on a bench thinking about a new story.  My thoughts were interrupted by a retired policeman who inquired about my book.  He had heard about it from someone in the park.  He pulled out his wallet and said, “I want a book.”   I don’t have the heart to tell retired people to go to the bookstore or order online.  So I took his money, promising to get a book for him.  At that moment, a woman neither of us knew was walking towards us on the trail.

When she saw him give me money she almost fell in the Missouri River.  I can only imagine what she was thinking since I am African-American and the retired policeman is Caucasian.

The walkers have changed in the  5 years I’ve been walking there.  Most of the people I knew in the beginning have moved on and new faces are becoming regular walkers.  But the character of the park hasn’t changed.

The park serves as a mini-community of friends.  A place to discuss the latest local and national news.  A place where people aren’t shy about expressing their political and religious views.  Regular walkers recognize me and speak and inquire about my day.  Nobody is too busy to stop and share a morning greeting.

One morning I was sitting on a bench reading and a man stopped to talk.  He had never talked to me before.  He said, “My wife died.”  I was shocked.  I’d just seen his wife and talked to her the week before.  He told me the details.  She had simply gone to sleep that Sunday night and never awakened.  After a few more words, he said, “I just wanted to talk to somebody who knew my wife.”  My being there in that moment comforted him.

Her sudden passing was hard on the people in the park.  She was in her mid-40′s and had a 13-year-old son at home.  The walkers rallied around him and shared in his grief.  He doesn’t walk in the park anymore.  Too many memories.

I wanted a community just like this one for Lauren, the main character in my book.  The people in the park are there for Lauren while her parents are consumed with their problems.

The people in the park I walk embody the true meaning of community.  When I lived in a big city and walked in a park not once did I see people stopping to chat with someone who crossed their path.  The people in this park look out for each other.  If a week or two goes by and they haven’t seen anyone, they inquire of others about them.

Last year I was out of town for 2 months straight.  When I returned to the park everybody wanted to know, “What happened to you?  We missed seeing you.”  Now when I’m going to be away, I always inform the regulars that I’m leaving town.

The people in the park where I walk hold a special place in my heart.  Through them I’ve come to understand the true meaning of the kindness of strangers.

I’d love to write their stories for real one day.

 

 

The People In The Park – A Novel For Teens

A couple of years ago my nieces were visiting and the topic turned to the books they were reading.  They hesitantly named books they had read.  Then they became quiet.  After a moment they lamented that it was hard to find books to read with characters they could identify with.  Books with characters like them.

They’re great students with good grades.  They’re intelligent young ladies preparing for college.  They lead well-rounded lives with a lot going on.

But they can’t find books with characters like them!

They’re:

- leaders

- sassy

- smart

- trendy

- feisty

- fun-loving

- thoughtful

- well-versed in the issues of the day

Yet they can’t find books with characters like them.

They hurt.  They mourn.  They have disappointments.  They have crushes.  Their hearts are broken.  They have conflicts with parents.

African-American teens are no different from other teens, sharing common experiences.  Teens are complex beings, leaving childhood behind and on the verge of adulthood.  There is more than one thing going on in their lives at any given time.

They navigate:

- friends

- family

- school

- extracurricular activities

- church

- community

However, they can’t find books with characters like them.

African-American teens live in a diverse society – a world inhabited by people of many cultures.  They navigate this world every day.

They should be able to read about those experiences.

So to my nieces and all teens who can’t find books with characters like them, here is The People In The Park, with love.

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Book Blurb:

Lauren Moffit is privileged and overprotected by her wealthy parents.  She is one of the few African-American students in a prestigious prep school in a predominately white neighborhood.  The world is her oyster.

Nothing can prepare her for the devastating scandal that rocks her world when her father is charged with investment fraud.  Spoiled and self-centered, she struggles to keep her head high.  But it’s not until she hears the stories of the people in the park, where she takes her daily run, that Lauren realizes she can rise above her family ‘situation.’

 

 

 

 

 

African American Jockeys Who Won The Kentucky Derby

Did you know that an African-American jockey won the first Kentucky Derby?   Oliver Lewis was the jockey and he won on “Aristides.”  In fact, African-American jockeys dominated the sport of thoroughbred horse racing for over 25 years.

As we prepare for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby, lets take a moment to remember the unsung heroes of thoroughbred horse racing and the contributions they made to the sport.

Listed below are the black jockeys who won the Kentucky Derby, the horses they rode, and the year they won.

1875     Oliver Lewis on “Aristides”

1877     William Walker on “Baden Baden”

1880     George Lewis on “Fonso”

1882     Babe Hurd on “Apollo”

1884     Isaac Murphy on “Buchanan”

1885     Enoch Henderson on “Joe Cotton”

1887     Isaac Lewis on “Montrose”

1890     Isaac Murphy on “Riley”

1891     Isaac Murphy on “Kingman”

1892     Alfie Clayton on “Azra”

1895     J. (Soup) Perkins on “Haima”

1896     Willie Sims on “Ben Brush”

1898     Willie Sims on “Plaudit”

1901     Jimmy Winkfield on “His Eminence”

1902     Jimmy Winkfield on “Alan-a-Dale”

Although these jockeys made nothing like the $2 million guaranteed purse offered in the 139th Kentucky Derby, some of them made a very good living plying their trade.  When Isaac Murphy died in 1896, his estate was valued at $50,000.

African-American jockeys travelled the elite racing circuit in the 1800′s.  However, because of injuries, illness, and lack of proper care, only a few became stars.

By the turn of the century, the sport began to change.  Growing racial tension between black and white jockeys began to erupt on and off the track.  The time soon arrived when black jockeys were no longer welcome on the track.  The days of the great black jockeys were over, never to return.

Today we salute the African-American winners of the Kentucky Derby and their place in history.

3 Reasons I Write About the History of the South

My books for children are set in the segregated South and focus on ordinary people who achieved extraordinary things for the time period in which they lived.  There are a number of reasons I write about the history of the South.  However, my top three reasons are:

1)  To Inspire Children to Dream Great Dreams For Their Lives – If children can see that the characters in my stories, who lived during a time of racial barriers and discrimination, could achieve their dreams, surely they will believe that they can too.  I’ll never forget the little girl who said to me, “I like your story about Uncle Jed.  I want to be a doctor when I grow up, but my grandmamma says I’ll never be one.  Now I know I can be a doctor.”  In all of my school visits I always ask the kids to tell me their dreams.  I want them to be heard.  I want them to feel that their dreams matter to someone.

2)  I Grew Up In The South – I was born and raised in Holly Springs, Mississippi on my grandfather’s farm.  My grandfather owned his own farm during a time when not many black people owned their own land.  I was a firsthand witness to the struggles my grandfather went through in maintaining his farm, which is why I put obstacles to be overcome in my stories.  I want children to know that dreams are sometimes not easy to achieve.  It seems like the bigger the dream, the bigger the obstacles that come your way.  But with persistence, focus, and determination, dreams can and will come true.

3) I Am Proud To Be From Mississippi – When someone asks me where I’m from, I without hesitation say Mississippi.   And being a proud product of Mississippi, I want children to be proud of where they are from and to remember that it is not where you start but where you end that counts.

The South has a troubled history that some think is best forgotten.  But only by discussing it can we focus on how to do our part to make the world a better place.