I came to teaching rather late in my life. After the death of my oldest son to cancer when he was eighteen, I decided to do something with my life that made a difference so I enrolled in college for the first time when I was forty-two years old. I chose elementary education because working with kids was something I’d always done; four children of my own in less than five years, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, CCD at my church and even a short stint as a Head Start teacher. Even though I was encouraged by some professors to change my goals towards teaching at the college level or at least high school, I ignored them. I knew what age I wanted to teach.
After graduating I got a third grade position in a small elementary school in the college town of Hiram, Ohio. I loved teaching this age and taught third grade for twenty years before retiring to spend more time writing and gardening, and with other things I enjoyed doing. Actually, I wanted to retire because the district we were in consolidated all four elementary schools into a mega intermediate school that required classes to switch so I no longer could have one group of kids I could teach all day. In a school like that, I couldn’t have taught what I did to create The Sherlock Holmes Detective Club.
I did have a Sherlock Holmes Detective Club in my classroom. I had numerous third grade level mystery books with two or three copies of each. Once a day partners – or sometimes three if we had an uneven number – would get together to read a chapter of the book they were reading. They could go anywhere in the room and curl up together. They had booklets I’d made where at the end of each chapter, they told what had happened, the characters, problems, etc. When the book was finished they were given a paper cutout of a boy or girl to write the title of the book on as well as their names and it was posted on the wall near a large laminated picture of Sherlock Holmes with his deer stalker hat and a microscope.
One year as a writing prompt, I brought in an old suitcase I claimed I’d found on my back steps that morning. Afraid that the owner would claim I’d stolen something from it, I’d brought it to school so the class and I could open it together and check it out. The kids were so excited about that and some even got magnifying glasses to look closely at the items. Most of what went on is in the book. One of the few things not in the book is they never found out I conned them. At the beginning because of older siblings or parents some had doubts, but as letters came from all over the country, postmarked and unopened, (Thanks to family and friends around the country who forwarded them.) they believed and became quite worried at times about Alice Van Brocken. Ivy, the narrator in the chapters with the class, did not really do the narrating. I added that, but Ivy was a real student. Only her name was changed. Because I did this twice, about seven years apart when I knew none in the class had older siblings to spoil the fun. I saved the letters from both classes.
Of course, I couldn’t include more than forty students in the book so I picked six girls and six boys to use. All were actual students of mine, but I changed the names and some details. Jose was actually a boy name Joe. For the most part, the letters are what the students wrote, but sometimes I combined a few letters here and there, or since the boy modeled on Andrew only sent along jokes a few times, I added a joke with every one of his letters to keep his persona.
One of the highlights of the year is when Alice Van Brocken actually visited during the last week of school. Of course, there is no real Alice Van Brocken. She’s totally from my imagination created a little like Mrs. Pollifax from that series of mysteries. The Alice who showed up was my sister Elaine. She was in her early fifties and not in her seventies like Alice, but kids think anyone older than their parents is old. I warned Elaine that the students would want to see her demonstrate karate and to tell them she’d injured her back when helping to capture the jewel thieves in Seattle.
Elaine taught seventh and eighth grade science in another country. Her school finished before ours did. Both times she came when a student opened the door at her knock, she swooped into the room beaming and wearing a full cotton skirt and a straw hat. Because I’d sent her pictures of my students, she was able to identify a few and told them how much she appreciated all the help they’d given her, etc.
When she took questions, of course someone wanted to her to show them some karate moves. She went into a serious spiel about how it was a discipline and not a form of entertainment and then suddenly she let out a yell, flung out her arms in a fake karate chop and gave a kick which her full skirt covered up the fake that it wasn’t a real karate kick. The first time she did that, I almost lost it. It was all I could do not to collapse in laughter, but the kids believed it. They squealed and when a short time later it was time to pack up to take their stuff out to the playground for a short recess before the buses came, instead they all lined up to get Alice Van Brocken’s autograph.
Shortly before that, though, she’d told them a friend who lived in The Netherlands wanted her to come over and help her track down the thieves who were stealing very expansive tulip bulbs. She went into some detail about that, too, but the kids all groaned when she said she was going. They had worried about her the whole year and didn’t want her to risk her life again.
Do I feel badly about my con job? No. They learned to write letters. They became better readers. They learned more about where different places were. And most of all, their imagination was sparked and they became more caring and impressed with what one brave woman was doing on her search for justice.
What goal did I have in writing this book? I wanted to see classroom sets in classrooms with the teacher reading Alice’s letters, and different students chosen each day to read the letters and dialogues of the students in the book. The students could sit as partners so even those not reading that day could silently read along. I hope it happens in more and more classrooms, not so much because I want an increase in sales as I want to see both teachers and students enjoying Alice’s trip around the country.
Gloria Alden’s Catherine Jewell Mystery series are The Blue Rose, Daylilies for Emily’s Garden, Ladies of the Garden Club, and a middle-grade book, The Sherlock Holmes Detective Club. Her published short stories include “The Professor’s Books” in FISH TALES, The Lure of the Rainbow in FISH NETS, “Once Upon a Gnome” in STRANGELY FUNNY and “Norman’s Skeleton’s” in ALL HALLOWS EVIL and several stories in the e-zine, Bethlehem Writers Roundtable; Mincemeat is for Murder and The Body in the Red Silk Dress.
Her short story “Cheating on Your Wife Can Get You Killed” won the Love is Murder contest in 2011. She blogs every Thursday on Writers Who Kill. She lives on a small farm in NE Ohio with assorted critters, including two ponies, six hens, a barn cat, two house cats, a canary, two ring-necked African Doves and her tricolor collie, Maggie.
Thank you so much for visiting me today, Gloria. I loved this story--and I know the children in your class did too.