The following article appears in the latest Essentially Elementary newsletter. With good humor, Mr Mercer recalls his recent experience as visiting author at the Elementary library:
This article has nothing to do with the history of I.S.T. (which is my official brief) so in an attempt to get it past the censors I shall at least begin with something historical…
In ancient Rome, when the Caesar of the time was making a triumphal entry after successfully beating up half the known world, he would ride at the back of a great procession in a chariot. With him would be a young male slave, whose unenviable role in life was to keep the emperor from getting too big for his boots by repeating the words, “Memento, Caesar, es mortalis!” (“Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal!”) at regular intervals.
In these enlightened times, when slaves are thankfully thin on the ground, where might we find someone to bring us down to Earth with a bump when we start to lose touch with reality? I shall tell you: among the lower grades of most elementary schools. Have you never wondered why teachers of very young kids are all so nice and “grounded”? Their kids keep them that way, as I was recently reminded.
I had been invited into I.S.T’s Elementary library for a whole week, by Mrs. Sue Toms, to talk about the challenges involved in writing and publishing a book.
“You just have to talk for fifteen minutes to each class,” Sue said with a disarming smile, “and then answer questions for another ten minutes. And then sign their library bags.”
She made it sound almost blissful.
“Sign their library bags?” I asked warily. “Why would they want me to do that?”
“They think you’re a celebrity, of course. I’ve told them how many books you’ve written. They’re all very excited. Perhaps you could draw little pictures as well. We had John Kilaka, the book illustrator, in recently, and he drew lovely little pictures for them…”
I thought about backing out but it was too late. I was committed to five days of “fame”.
On the first morning, as I was approaching the library, a First Grade boy planted himself in front of me and announced, gravely, “I remember you. I saw you in school last year.” Someone recognised me – this was a good start. At least until he added: “But you were much younger then…”
He walked off, leaving me wondering how I could have aged twelve years in as many months, and this after investing in a second-hand exercise bike. I should have opted for a low budget face-lift.
Later that morning a Second Grade girl came and stood alongside me, her large eyes fixed on my face in an attitude of bewilderment rather than hero-worship. “Did you want to see me?” I asked.
“Well, I just want to know who you ARE!” she responded.
Thinking that celebrities are expected to be jocular and witty I said, “You know something? I’ve forgotten! It’s my age, you know…”
“Well,” she said, trying to jog my memory, “you LOOK like David Attenborough…”
Now for those of you who don’t know, David Attenborough is a rather eccentric but much-loved British presenter of wildlife programmes, and a real celebrity. I felt flattered. Until I remembered that David now looks about 90.
By now I had been exposed to the first wave of autograph signing. “Mr. Mercer”, Sue had announced after my first talk to a Second Grade class, “will now sign your library bags. And maybe [this with a meaningful smile in my direction] draw a nice little picture!”
The kids clamoured around me, with their bags.
“Right,” I announced, with dictatorial finality, “you can have a picture of EITHER a lion OR an elephant, OK?”
This was met with what I took to be silent acquiescence and I turned confidently to the boy at the head of the queue.
“Lion or elephant?”
“I don’t DO scorpions,” I replied.
“OK,” he said, quite nonplussed, “I’ll have a helicopter.”
“LI-on or ELE-phant, young man.”
“Mr. Kilaka did scorpions! And helicopters!”
“AND peacocks!” added someone else.
“AND gorillas!” said a third.
“I want a koala bear,” murmured a pretty little girl, batting her eyelashes at me with truly frightening expertise.
I was soon drawing things I had never drawn in my life before. Pretty badly, of course, as the kids pointed out (“Mr. Kilaka did really NICE giraffes…”). And I wasn’t just drawing them on library bags but also on caps and hats, some of which were brand new, and expensive-looking. My protests that their Mums and Dads might get mad and come looking for me were cheerfully brushed aside.
The crunch came when a 5th Grade girl asked me to autograph her socks.
She was already bending down unfastening her trainers.
“Hold it!” I said, realising that I was on the brink of something I would regret, and knowing that if I signed her socks, I would soon be signing three or four hundred other socks. Socks, let us not forget, that had recently raced around the school field or the library quad throughout two break-times on a hot and humid Dar es Salaam day.
“Not your SOCKS,” I protested. “Your Mum will go bonkers!”
“She won’t – my Mum’s really nice!”
“What about your Dad?” I asked desperately (she was unfastening her other shoe).
“My DAD? He never even NOTICES my socks!”
Now a long time ago, when I was in the British Royal Navy, I was taught that, “The Navy never says ‘no’ to a lady. But I couldn’t imagine Admiral Lord Nelson, for example, ever agreeing to sign three or four hundred sweaty socks, and what was good enough for him was good enough for me, so I politely declined. The young lady took it graciously. “OK, Mr. Mercer,” she smiled, re-fastening her shoes, “I’ll bring my bag in tomorrow and you can sign that.”
Meanwhile my age, it seems, was still an issue. As I was signing further autographs a Fourth Grade girl asked how old I was.
“127”, I replied, flippantly. Disturbingly, she didn’t dispute it, but remarked: “Wow! That’s REALLY old!”
“No it isn’t!” insisted a boy standing next to her – one of those boys who appears to carry the Guinness Book of Records inside his head – “There’s a woman in Japan or somewhere who is 300! Mr. Mercer isn’t really old, he’s just learned how to stay alive for a very long time. Haven’t you, Mr. Mercer?”
I assured him that I had indeed accorded considerable importance to the business of trying to stay alive, if only until the end of the present cricket World Cup (why else would I buy an exercise bike that I hate using?).
The boy went on, regardless: “And you know HOW he stays alive? He eats healthy food. Don’t you, Mr. Mercer?”
“Oh yes,” I lied, having just polished off two rather greasy samusas and a great fat doughnut lathered in icing sugar from the school canteen. The girl, still looking gob-smacked at the thought of a 300-year-old Japanese lady, nodded her approval, hoping, no doubt, that I would at least live long enough to sign her library bag.
But it was not until late on the Friday morning that my elusive celebrity was finally acknowledged, by a KG girl. She and her classmates had gathered round my table and when I drew a picture on her bag and signed it, she gazed at it in awe and gasped “Wow! You are a really good author, Mr. Mercer!”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you draw BEAUTIFUL butterflies!”
So now you know… I might not be Julius Caesar, but I have been made aware of my mortality, and my limitations…