The classroom was beyond hot, it was Friday afternoon, and the Fifth Grade Class I was subbing in wanted no part of anything educational. With about 30 minutes to kill, I considered reading aloud to them, but as a sub, you need to know when to give up the ghost so I reminded everyone not to break anything or hurt one another and read the book to myself. As giggles, whispers, and particles of paper filled the air, I happened upon the story of Wilson Rawls, the author of the classic dog story, Where the Red Fern Grows. Published in 1961 by Doubleday, the book ranks up there with Lassie Come Home and Jack London’s Call of the Wild. In fact it was the latter that inspired this unlikeliest of authors.
Rawls grew up poor, but his mother knew the importance of literacy and instilled in her son the love of reading. At age 15, Rawls, and his family, experienced the hard times brought about by the Great Depression, and Rawls learned to make a living with his hands, and working odd jobs. But through all his difficulties, he never forgot his ultimate goal, to write a dog story as good as Call of the Wild. Although his grammar and spelling skills were poor, it didn’t stop him from expressing himself on paper. But Rawls felt very insecure about his writing ability, and was so ashamed of what he had produced that just before marrying his wife, Sophie in 1958, he burned everything he had written. Upon hearing him retell his stories, the educated Sophie, made him rewrite one that would become, with her editing skills, the classic Where the Red Fern Grows. This moving story traces the relationship between a young dog-loving boy and his two Blue tick hounds.
This author’s life story really hits close to home. First, as you all know, I really believe (despite the kind of day I was having) that young kids, especially boys, can be inspired to write if they are interested in the topic, and 9 times out of 10, the subject of dogs will evoke enthusiasm, and emotion that can spill on to paper. As we see in the Rawls story, a young man so moved by one great dog story, changed his life, and the lives of others, by writing one great dog story himself.
The other thing that struck me is that being a writer is a calling. You feel compelled to write no matter what the circumstance, and find it fairly easy to consistently manipulate words, sentences, and paragraphs, etc.. If you have something to say, or contribute to the world, the best thing you can do for yourself is to quietly write away, tell your story as you see it, and someday you will get your break. Rawls himself believed in the power of perseverance against all odds and went on to speak to thousands of young students, many aspiring writers, advising them to stay in school to learn to spell and punctuate correctly, and to never give up on their dreams. This is the kind of inspiration that can take place in the classroom during National Dog Week this September, not just from a literacy standpoint, but as a way to teach responsibility, and positive social skills by helping animals. That is what Captain Will Judy intended when he established the observance back in 1928.
So, even though my students that day weren’t open to receiving this message, another class, under different circumstances will. And as the day drew to an end, and I closed my book and repeated once again, “This too shall pass,” I wished them all a great weekend and thought about a short story I had written about a dog that might, with a little more work, just be the next Where the Red Fern Grows.