YORK -- Drowning, I was, until a little guy in blue shorts and glasses, and a mind that will change the world some day, threw me a life preserver.
"Heroes," Sammy said. "I like to write about heroes. People like to read about them. I know I do."
I'm no hero. But I try to tell the stories of everyday heroes in this newspaper, and that's why I was drowning. I write their stories, not talk about them.
But these kids read. They know. A wonderful magician of a teacher, Harold C. Johnson Middle School literacy coach Elizabeth Bridges, had asked me to speak to her dozens of sixth- and seventh-graders about what makes a good story and how to make it so people like them want to read it.
They had spent weeks reading most of the columns I've done in recent months. I know a good story when I talk to people, hang around with them, shoot the breeze, see how they talk and how they look, but to explain why is another matter. And here I was trying to do it. If there was a cliff nearby, I would have jumped. I was so bad some of these kids should have pushed me.
Sammy knew how to save me, though.
So I told them about a computer guy named Kurt Merkle who jumped from his minivan to tackle a man being chased by a cop. Why was it a good story?
"He was a hero!" Sammy said.
These kids asked about a story about a Rock Hill soldier named Tim Sweatt who had his finger held for blocks by a tiny kid in Afghanistan several months ago. Why? Heroes.
Kids are always smarter than adults. They miss nothing.
A kid named Patrick wanted to know everything. Why short sentences are better most times.
"Jesus wept," I said. "Never been a better sentence written. Ever."
Why you don't need big words most times. Why I write like people talk and when people are quoted they talk like everybody's mama's sister down at the Kut'n'Kurl when most news stories and TV news sounds like Martian.
The other thing that saved me was pig intestines.
"Chitlins!" called out a little girl named T.J. "You wrote about chitlins."
I wrote one story about how a church was selling chitlins as a fundraiser, how the choice of chitlins was odd and worth a story. Every kid in these five classes raised his or her hand when asked if they read it and all said, "I remember!"
"Ewww," one girl said.
"Gross!" said another.
"Smells bad," said a third.
"My grandmother cooks them, and I hate the smell," a fourth said.
A bunch said they went home and told their families from York about chitlins and so many family members said in the old days that chitlins smelled just as bad.
Kids remember it when you gross them out.
One kid wanted to know if I had met any celebrities.
I told them how I had shaken hands with Barack Obama, pro athletes, been just feet from presidents and Billy Graham.
"What about Jessica Simpson?" asked one kid.
"Nope," I said.
I dashed his dreams in one word.
One girl raised her hand and said, "You look like the father from 'Full House.'"
I asked, "The cool musician one or the dork tall one?"
"The tall dorky one," she said.
Shocker. I look like a dork.
During the lunch break between classes, I sat at the teachers' table. Kids brought copies of the newspapers over, and I signed a few dozen. The kids were so terrific I said I should have asked for their autographs instead. They are stars. Interested, smart, lively, bright.
Me, I spill ketchup on my shirt and wipe it on my pants.
I ate the school lunch. Chicken patty sandwich, baked beans, pear halves, an oatmeal cookie. My late mother was a lunch lady.
A kid sat alone at another table, a teacher said "Silent lunch." Meaning where kids who get in a little trouble have to sit and eat for punishment. I said aloud, "Silent lunch? They should have named silent lunch after me."
The kids at Harold C. Johnson Middle School are terrific. They learn under some great teachers.
And I learned some valuable things Thursday: These kids are a lot smarter than I am. And they want heroes.
The heroes are each other. And a school full of teachers/heroes who know that reading and writing can save them -- like it did me.