BLOOMINGTON — A 9-year-old in a 73-year-old’s body shared words of wisdom with elementary students Wednesday.
That’s how award-winning children’s author Patricia Polacco describes herself.
“I still see the world through the eyes of a child,” said Polacco, who has written and illustrated 115 books.
Polacco is visiting several McLean County Unit 5 schools this week. On Wednesday she spoke to students at Fox Creek Elementary School in Bloomington, touching on topics about overcoming learning disabilities and solidifying dreams.
“When you look at me, you’re looking at a learning disabled student who grew up," said the Michigan author. "I couldn’t read until I was 14 years old. I couldn’t do numbers or write.
"I didn’t dare to have any dreams because I thought they wouldn’t come true for me,”
Polacco was deemed dyslexic as a child, meaning she has trouble interpreting words, letters and symbols. She described reading in front of her school peers as “a nightmare” that always ended in bullying and laughter.
“When you see someone struggle like that, you feel rather embarrassed for them. Please don’t laugh. You don’t know how much you’re hurting that kid,” she said.
Then she spoke to students who might be facing similar learning challenges.
“If you’re getting special help, you stick out your chest. If he were alive now, Albert Einstein would be in that room with you,” said Polacco. “Every single one of you is gifted, but we don’t open our gifts at the same time. Cut yourself some slack.”
Fourth-grader Ryan Carmona said Polacco’s message about overcoming dyslexia was inspiring because he also struggles with reading.
“She made me feel like I can do anything,” he said.
Polacco also read excerpts of her books to the group, including popular picks like “The Keeping Quilt” and “Meteor.”
“Meteor” is based on a true story about an 800-pound meteorite that skidded across the lawn of her grandparents’ home.
Local people stopped by her grandparents’ farm to touch the rock, claiming it had the power to grant wishes. The same meteor now sits near her grandmother’s grave in Michigan where it is still sought for wish granting.
The Fox Creek students waited with wide eyes as Polacco told the story, erupting into gasps and chatter as she pulled a small chunk of the meteorite out of a box.
She told the students they could line up to wish on the rock after the assembly, but said they couldn’t wish for money, to change another person or for toys.
“You’re here for a reason and this old lady is counting on you,” she said. “Doctors are sitting here — poets, teachers, scientists, philosophers, singers — people who will contribute to this world in the most magnificent way.”
While holding the hunk of meteorite, she wished out loud that the present students would never feel hopeless and that they would wake up the next day feeling empowered.
“The rock is getting very hot. It almost burnt my hand. That means it’s granting a wish,” Polacco said to the star-struck students.
Second-grade teacher Shannon Hedman said that bit of magical storytelling and inspiration “makes a huge impact” on students, especially coming from someone they admire.
“It’s important to send a message that keeps kids growing and dreaming. The trick is getting them to believe their visions are possible. Patricia gave them permission to believe they can achieve their goals,” said Hedman.
Fifth-grader Kaylee Mattocks said she is a fan of Polacco’s writing because it’s out of the ordinary.
“She doesn’t just write a perfect, happy story. She writes about her life and how it had ups and downs and it wasn’t perfect. When you write, you can express your inner feelings about whatever you want, whether it’s fantasy, nonfiction or informational,” said Kaylee.