Reading & Literacy

NCTE: Gary Paulsen Speaks...For a While

By Elizabeth Rich — November 22, 2010 2 min read
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Live from the National Council of Teachers of English, Annual Convention, Orlando

Author Gary Paulsen spoke at Saturday’s ALAN—Assembly of Literature for Adolescents—breakfast. He likes to talk and spoke for almost an hour. There might have been a few eye rolls at my table and murmurings of “indulgent” towards the end of his speech. But I was told that is because language arts teachers know his books and his biography well.

My confession is that I’ve never read a book by Gary Paulsen. He’s a late-20th century Jack London who loves and writes about dogs. He’s raced the Iditarod and written about it, and he famously wears a baseball cap. So if you know everything there is to know about Paulsen, please forgive the post.

Paulsen had a tough life before he became a mega-bestselling author and he talked about it. He didn’t have much of a childhood. His parents were drunks and he was a street kid. He saw a lot of death as a kid. He’s been dirt poor and incarcerated three times. He’s survived (quite happily it seems) for years on the meat of trapped animals. In the 1970s, he decided to move to Taos, N.M., to hang out with writers. There he met Dennis Hopper. And he started to drink. Heavily. “I hit booze the way a baby hits the bottle,” he told us.

He was also a terrible student. He couldn’t read. He supported himself by selling papers to the drunks at the local bar. The only time he went home, he said, was to empty his parents’ wallets. When it was cold, he would duck inside the library to wait for the drunks to arrive at the nearby bar. When a librarian offered him a library card while he was waiting to hit up his customers, he complied, he said, as a sort of personal dare. “I was a smart ass.”

Having a library card with his name on it gave him his first sense of individuality. He checked out books, but couldn’t understand what he was reading, until he started to read more. “Everything I know, I owe to that woman,” he said.

But it wasn’t all bad. He had a successful aerospace engineer career and made good money. He had a wife and “2.6 kids.” But one night staring at the console, “like something you would have seen in the ‘Apollo 13' movie,” he pushed his chair back and decided that was it. He turned his badge in to security on his way out the door and told the guard, “I’m going to be a writer.”

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

After Paulsen spoke for close to an hour, a woman pushed a piece of paper across the stage to him. “Five minutes,” he read out loud. In reaction to the note, in the middle of telling a story about racing the Iditarod, he lobbed a non-sequitur and cracked, “And then I started drinking in the morning.” Say what you will about him, but he strikes me as fearless.

He wrapped it up on a dark note with a push to teachers. “We are terminal. The only hope is young people, if there is any hope. Don’t hold anything back. Kill T.V. They’re closing libraries in schools. It’s horrible. It’s the exact opposite of what needs to be done. My only advice to you is to go back to your jobs and kick ass.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.