Where the Redhead Grows

My interview was scheduled for noon. It’s not every day you are a keynote speaker for Miss Bernice’s fourth-grade class career day, via video call. I wore a necktie.

Miss Bernice’s class has been interviewing a lot of people lately about their careers by using video calls. She has been introducing the kids to people with different occupations from all over the U.S.

So far, her class has welcomed guests from all fields. The class has interviewed PhDs, celebrated journalists, famous musicians, chefs, well-known songwriters, people who work in finance, pro fishermen, doctors, and anyone else who drives a Range Rover.

I was scheduled to go on after the decorated navy pilot.

While the fighter pilot gave his presentation, I started to feel like a an idiot. I looked at the little camera image of myself on my laptop screen and cringed. My red hair was disheveled, my face looked tired. The bags beneath my eyes could have been used for a Samsonite ad.

Captain America wowed his audience, and I was trying to remember when and why I became a writer in the first place.

Truthfully, I don’t know when exactly I first wanted to be a writer. I can’t remember ever NOT wanting to be one.

Still, I think it must have happened officially for me in the fourth grade. That was the year our teacher read “Where the Red Fern Grows.”

She would read aloud to us after lunch period, every weekday for an hour. And she did all the voices.

It takes real talent to do the character voices right.

That beautiful woman with the cat-eye glasses and the coiffed hair possessed such talent. I can never forget that period of my life.

We would file into the classroom after gorging ourselves in the cafeteria. She would turn off the lights, sit by the window, and read to us.

Students would gather around her like disciples in da Vinci’s Last Supper. We would lie on the floor, sit at her feet, or recline in her bosom. She would hypnotize us with her voice, and many of us would completely forget about how badly we had to pee.

After she finished reading Wilson Rawls’ classic homily of boyhood, I knew precisely what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to use little boys restroom.

But also, I wanted to be a maker of stories.

That year I started spending entire weekends before a little pinewood desk in my room, tapping out five-hundred-word pieces on my mother’s manual typewriter. My stuff read like a bad “Curious George” book.

But I fell in love with the process of writing. Namely, because writing was among one of the only acceptable forms of entertainment fundamentalist boys like me had.

I grew up during a slower time. I don’t mean to imply that I grew up in the late 1920s, but I was born at the tail end of an era that still used letters in phone numbers.

The internet had not been invented. Cell phones were devices only found in prisons. Arcade games had pinballs in them. And cable television was for people who told Charles to saddle their horse.

Thus, my boyhood was devoid of technology. The most advanced piece of tech-equipment in our household was my father’s console Zenith television. It was his prized possession. He wiped it down before and after each use.

Entertainmentwise, the highlight of our week was Howard Cosell, or CBS’s “Sunday Night Movie.” We never missed a Lawrence Welk rerun on PBS. And Carson was a deity.

Other than that, it was books for me. I read a lot. And I tried to imitate what I read by typing it onto paper. I adored Doyle, Pyle, Defoe, and Samuel Clemens. I idolized anyone who could make me laugh.

But I’ll level with you. I was an untalented student. I wasn’t quick. I wasn’t diligent. I had a hard time following instructions, I couldn’t pay attention. My grades were pitiful. I once lost the regional spelling bee with the word “purple.”

Purple.

Later, I went on to fail the fifth grade. I was almost held back a year, but a charitable educator had mercy on my flailing self-confidence, and she let me enter the sixth grade.

A year later, after my old man died, I dropped out of school altogether and didn’t return until I was a grown man with a mortgage. I was the poster child for white trash.

So how am I qualified to give advice to young people on how to pursue their dreams? How can I, with a clear conscience, impart any words of value when I know so little? How, I ask.

So when the navy pilot finished a stunning presentation for his awestruck audience, it was my turn. I was nervous. It was like being the follow-up act to Elvis.

The teacher asked me to explain to the class how I came to fall in love with writing.

I cleared my throat. And, without preamble, I thumbed open a tattered copy of a children’s book I once read in the fourth grade. A book that has helped me through some very hard times.

I did all the voices.

And I ditched the necktie.

65 comments

  1. Dennis Browne - January 6, 2022 7:18 am

    I always loved when my fourth grade teacher, Mrs Marrs, read to us after lunch … magical.

    Reply
  2. Eileen - January 6, 2022 7:35 am

    It was our fifth grade teacher, Mrs.Showalter, that read to us. That year it was the classic adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn by that alter ego of Samuel Clemons. She made those tales come alive. Thanks for resurrecting those memories.

    Reply
  3. Christian Beyer - January 6, 2022 9:45 am

    Sean,
    You never cease to amaze me with your talent. Thank you for bringing a bit of joy, laughter, wonder, and yes, sometimes sorrow, to my morning everyday.

    Reply
  4. Anne Arthur - January 6, 2022 11:18 am

    Thank God you pursued your dream and kept writing. The world would be so much poorer without you, Sean.

    Reply
  5. David - January 6, 2022 11:40 am

    A beautiful story beautifully written!

    Reply
  6. Joy Jacobs - January 6, 2022 11:41 am

    You’re a celebrated author to us. ❤️

    Reply
  7. Clint Roberson - January 6, 2022 11:48 am

    Where the Red Fern grows was my favorite book growing up. I had a redbone coon dog named Dan. I once cut short a vacation as a 10 year old to get home because the movie was coming on TV. In the fifth grade, I can remember skipping recess to stay in class and finish the book. Good times!

    Reply
  8. SuAnne Cobb - January 6, 2022 11:53 am

    I can just see you & your class scattered around your teacher as she reads to you all. You make stories come alive, Sean. Thank you.

    Reply
  9. Mrs. Walker - January 6, 2022 11:54 am

    Thank you. You have a gift. This fifth grade teacher thanks you for the validation. I will retire this year after 38 years. I’ve always wondered how many of my students enjoyed my lame attempts at voices. Read aloud was always a favorite part of my day, too.

    Reply
    • AUTigrr - January 6, 2022 5:31 pm

      What an incredible blessing you have given all these years!

      Reply
  10. Dee - January 6, 2022 12:21 pm

    That book is a classic. Thank God for teachers and anyone who loves to read to students!!!! Thank you Sean (Samuel).

    Reply
  11. Arlene Bennett - January 6, 2022 12:26 pm

    This column brought back Miss Burdue back to my mind, the lovely stories she read. I need to go find the one about the raccoon or the girl who could hear everything people thought. I don’t write, not that I wouldn’t like to, but I love books because of her. I read all the time and I appreciate your memories of a childhood similar to mine. I get tears almost every day, along with laughs, after reading your newest. Thank you.

    Reply
  12. Joy Croom - January 6, 2022 12:33 pm

    My third grade teacher, Mrs.Colwell, read Charlotte’s Web to us. She did an amazing job. She perfectly voiced every character. I can hear her to this day and I’m 64 years old! I sure hope teachers still read to their students.

    Reply
  13. Nick - January 6, 2022 1:20 pm

    Sean, we are just listening to Stars of Alabama, our first audio book with you as the reader, and we were pleasantly surprised at how well you are doing the voices. Without doubt, a GREAT talent. Well done!!

    Reply
  14. Diane - January 6, 2022 1:22 pm

    Loved this column. One of my good friends is a 4th grade teacher. Every year she reads “Where the Red Fern Grows” to her class. She never tires of this book and her students love it. I enjoy your column every day and am very thankful for your 4th grade teacher;

    Reply
  15. Liza - January 6, 2022 1:36 pm

    Love this story! And I think your favorite authors would be honored to know what you’ve done with your talent!

    Reply
  16. Karen+Erwin-Brown - January 6, 2022 1:37 pm

    Grace Gutherie was my 4th and 5th grade teacher at Bush School in Birmingham. She loved our class so much she kept us with her. Every day after lunch, she turned off the lights, we put our heads on our desks, then she read us the Bible and the Bobbsey Twins.. in that order. I’m sure I napped . It was awesome.

    Reply
  17. Helen De Prima - January 6, 2022 1:39 pm

    I can’t remember not being in love with words and reading. My grandmother taught me to read before I ever entered a classroom; she feared I would grow with a stunted arm from carrying a book at all times. My dream from childhood onward was to write a book others would want to read. I didn’t realize that dream until I was nearly seventy, but now I’ve almost completed my fifth novel. And yes, readers seem to enjoy what I write.

    Reply
    • RWiegers - January 10, 2022 11:26 am

      Helen, you give me hope.

      Reply
  18. CherylW - January 6, 2022 1:40 pm

    I remember every one of my grade school teachers, most especially my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Franklin, who introduced us to Laura Ingalls Wilder. Those books changed my little life. I loved grade school with the library that smelled of paste and old books. I remember starting at the first shelf and reading my way through that small library. I was estatic when a bookmobile started coming down our street in the summer. In the 4th grade I was tested and was told I had a 9th grade reading level. I grew up in the post WW2 era. We lived about 4 blocks from school so most of us neighborhood kids walked home for lunch and walked back to school. No tv until I was eight, thank the Lord. Phone number with letters and a party line. We lived in a neighborhood just outside of downtown, and I remember the milkman’s horse pulling the cart on the yet to be paved street. My mother read to me and the radio was always playing music. I often wondered how I knew the words to the old late 40’s popular songs, and it must have been my young mind absorbing the words my mother sang along with the singer on the radio. I am 74 and feel sorry for my grandchildren in high school missing a sweet, slower life.

    Reply
  19. Paul McCutchen - January 6, 2022 1:55 pm

    I wish I was entertained in grade school. If my memory serves me, we were the ones doing the reading and I sweated it every time.

    Reply
  20. Mac - January 6, 2022 1:59 pm

    Our 4th grade teacher was not my favorite but one thing I still remember is her reading Dixie North to us after lunch. We looked forward to it every day.

    Reply
  21. Linda Willson - January 6, 2022 2:14 pm

    I was recently forwarded All the Purty Horses and so that was the day I discovered you and your talented storytelling. I have fallen head over heels in love with the way you write and now look forward to every sentence you create. I’m also 3/4s of the way thru your book, Will the Circle be Unbroken. I’m doing my best to make it last but it’s hard to put down so today I’ll wind up on the last page and that book will wing it’s way to Virginia (I live in KY) for my sisters to share and enjoy. Your joy for writing is evident in every thing you create. Thank you and also for inspiring those of us who have had the writing urge pinging on us for years!

    Reply
  22. PLD - January 6, 2022 2:22 pm

    Night John Boy!

    Reply
  23. Carole Moormann - January 6, 2022 2:27 pm

    I am so glad I get your column
    In my
    Inbox everyday. I loved this story. I used to love having the teacher read to me. It was so special. Thank you for bringing back some
    Really good memories.

    Reply
  24. Nancy Crews - January 6, 2022 2:33 pm

    ❤your writing. Books have saved many of us.

    Reply
  25. Richard Baker - January 6, 2022 2:35 pm

    Rich! I too remember a lovely woman, in my case 5th grade, who engendered a love of books in me as well that has been a life long gift.
    So, I loved this post, thanks Red.

    Reply
  26. Jan - January 6, 2022 2:37 pm

    Oh how I would have loved to be in that classroom listening to you read. Reading and writing are two of my very favorite activities! Enjoy and learn from you each and every day. What a treat!

    Reply
  27. Sarah - January 6, 2022 3:37 pm

    Everyone has purpose.
    Everyone matters.
    And everyone has their own timeline.

    Reply
  28. Imelda (Mel);Bozorgmehr - January 6, 2022 3:43 pm

    I had a teacher in 4th grade that read to us. This was to a class of country hicks that didn’t read – except for me. She would bribe us with if we got our work done she would read. She started with Uncle Remus with all the voices. I realize this was before politically correct & we had no black students. I think she was a frustrated actress, but she gave us all the emotions & voices & it was so real to us.. God bless such teachers! She was also observant & put me at first seat to the blackboard & sent a note to my mom that she thought I needed glasses. It’s a good thing she did because I was nearly blind!

    Reply
  29. Peggy Bracey - January 6, 2022 3:47 pm

    Mrs. Nix read to us after lunch everyday when I was in the fourth grade. Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Super Fudge, Charlotte’s Web I loved every minute. Did she know I would remember this so far into life? I would guess not. But I’d like to tell her now Thank You!

    Reply
  30. Ruth Mitchell - January 6, 2022 4:05 pm

    Thank you, Sean. You just validated my own teaching career. I read Where the Red Fern Grows to my seventh grade students, and they loved it. I never got tired of it the many years I taught. I am even more impressed it with now just knowing it started that spark for writing in your life. I wish I could have had you share your personal story with my classes proving that it’s never too late to follow a dream. You are such a role model and inspiration.

    Reply
  31. Penn Wells - January 6, 2022 4:08 pm

    However winding and pot-hole marked the road was that got you here, you made it. And you didn’t ask to be the one who gets a grateful nation off to a sane start every day, but you are. And we are blessed to have you. And thankful.

    Reply
  32. Belinda Crowell - January 6, 2022 4:10 pm

    Thank you, Sean, for being a writer. All of your life experiences have given you sufficient fodder. Love u!

    Reply
  33. Lynn Owen - January 6, 2022 4:29 pm

    Once again, loved your story. You sound just like me in grade school. Looking back, I’m sure I had ADD. That wasn’t a “thing” then. But we both muddled through. You became an incredible writer. I went through nursing school…..and so it was…..

    Reply
  34. Jannie Bryant - January 6, 2022 5:00 pm

    Most people will never comprehend the dedication and discipline of producing a column seven days a week. The fact that you have is a true testament to your love of writing. Your column is a joy and bright spot every day. Thank you for your dedication.

    Reply
  35. Gigi - January 6, 2022 5:10 pm

    My fondest memory of Elementary School is when the teacher would read to us for an hour after lunch. Our school was built in the 1920’s so it had thick walls, wood floors, high ceilings, and every exterior wall had very tall windows. Our teacher, Mrs. Rather, would pull the shades down to darken the room, then she would sit near the windows to read. She entertained us and ignited my imagination with stories like Wind in the Willows, Charlottes Web, The Black Stallion, etc.. I still to this day love to read.

    Reply
  36. AUTigrr - January 6, 2022 5:30 pm

    5th grade and the Hobbit being read aloud after class. Pure bliss. Wonder if the teacher reading to the class this way happens much today?

    Reply
  37. Bob E - January 6, 2022 5:40 pm

    So you couldn’t spell ‘purple’…
    And now your writing is blue ribbon.
    Keep it up.

    Reply
  38. Cynthia Russell - January 6, 2022 5:41 pm

    Perfect way to handle your talk.. I know the kids loved it!! Thank You & your heart!

    Reply
  39. Mary Jo McIntosh - January 6, 2022 6:08 pm

    Great story but you left us hanging…What was the name of the book in 4th grade. Your stories are priceless…Thank you.

    Reply
    • RWiegers - January 10, 2022 11:30 am

      The book was “Where The Red Fern Grows.”

      Reply
  40. MAM - January 6, 2022 6:48 pm

    My fourth-grade teacher was not my favorite, but any means. I guess I was a smart-aleck, but I’m afraid I thought I was smarter than she was, and in a lot of ways, I was. I corrected her pronunciation of foreign words quite often. My fifth-grade teacher, however, made up for the terrible fourth-grade one, by really paying attention to her students and by teaching us the skill of diagramming sentences, which most students hated, and I loved, because it was fun! It’s probably why I grew up to be a proofreader and editor, after majoring in Spanish and French Good teachers make such wonderful memories for their students.

    Reply
  41. MAM - January 6, 2022 6:50 pm

    And I should have proofread my comment. I left the period off after French. Yes, I don’t want errors in my work. Purposeful ones are fun, but carelessness is not.

    Reply
  42. Linda Moon - January 6, 2022 6:52 pm

    Boy oh boy, do I have good memories of teaching fifth grade readers. “Where the Red Fern Grows” was one of our favorites. I’m so glad, Writer, that you never NOT wanted to be one. It would have been a challenge and JOY to be your teacher!

    A+

    Reply
  43. Becky+Souders - January 6, 2022 11:19 pm

    You are one smart cookie, Sean Dietrich.

    Reply
  44. Shirlea - January 7, 2022 1:46 am

    Penn Wells said it well in the comments! Nothing to add except ditto.

    Reply
  45. CHARALEEN WRIGHT - January 7, 2022 2:22 am

    Reply
  46. haphazardharpist - January 7, 2022 3:18 am

    Bravo!! You were their hero Sean Dietrich!

    Reply
  47. Tawanah Fagan Bagwell - January 7, 2022 4:47 am

    I also had a teacher who had us to put our heads on our desks while she read to us after lunch! I am not sure which grade but we listened to The Boxcar Children. There were several books about them so they went on for weeks. A good memory for us and I know those kids loved you too’

    Reply
  48. Debbie g - January 7, 2022 2:40 pm

    Thankful to your teacher who inspired you to write and thankful for you who inspires us with your writing every day love you Sean and Jamie !!!!!

    Reply
  49. Christina - January 7, 2022 9:36 pm

    You are the best, Sean!

    Reply
  50. DeLois Gainey - January 8, 2022 5:50 am

    In Children’s Literature at FSU, I first learned of Where The Red Fern Grows. Beginning with my first classroom in 1967, I introduced students to this tender story. I had to put the last few pages on tape because I cried when trying to read it. Most students cried along with me.

    Reply
  51. Melinda McNicoll - January 8, 2022 1:51 pm

    I couldn’t read for a month after finishing ‘where the red fern grows’. Too heartbroken. Even now, I’m careful with books. Sometimes truth is too painful.

    Reply
  52. Lavenda - January 8, 2022 2:43 pm

    Ah yes..where the red fern grows..it was a mandatory red forme in school. I don’t remember what grade but because it was “mandatory” the rebel in me said NO WAY. I read the book a few years later and fell in love with it. When I was in school they had a period, I guess like your teacher read, ours made us do creative writing..and I LOVED it. I knew then I wanted to be a writer. As life goes on, we lose that childhood vision. Guess I should said I lost it.im kind of like you..saying to myself who would care to hear my thoughts or who would care to read what I write so I never went back to it. So, I live it vicarious through you and your writings and please don’t ever stop. BTW, I was eating at a little restaurant the other day. The Derby in Mount Airy NC. I found myself wondering if you and Jamie had ever been there…

    Reply
  53. Peggy C - January 8, 2022 3:46 pm

    I was a high school English teacher for many years, and my most rewarding teaching came when I was assigned to teach a class of 11th graders who were reading at about a 7th or 8th grade level. Without question, not one of them had ever read a whole novel. They could not write coherent paragraphs at the start of the year, and many struggled with correct sentences. So I started where they were and created my own materials, and we worked and worked and worked. At the end of the year, my hard-working students were writing essays!

    The only book I asked the principal to buy for the whole class was “Where the Red Fern Grows.” And I wanted it to be a book each student would own–not one to be recycled for the next school year. We read a chapter per day and discussed it in class. A few students lagged behind at first, until they discovered what they were missing. We did read parts aloud in class, and they told me that they began reading aloud at home too. When we got to the sad end, a student asked me what he should do with the book now. I said he should take it home and read it to his younger brothers and sisters–to help them love reading. I really hope he did.

    Reply
  54. Betty A Mullaney - January 9, 2022 11:29 am

    Third grade. The Secret Garden. Nuff said.

    Reply
    • Caroline Conner - January 10, 2022 5:15 am

      Definitely!!

      Reply
  55. Elva k Kimbrough - January 10, 2022 3:33 am

    My very good friend, Ronda, would email me your stories. I loved them. You are a genius story teller. I am a nurse but after early retirement , I substituted for teachers when they needed off. I also read to the third and fourth class because I had a teacher in third grade who read to us
    . My father taught me to read from the morning newspaper before I started school. As a result, I skipped first grade. He also taught me math. I had a wonderful Dad.

    Reply
  56. Sue - January 10, 2022 4:11 am

    I always read to my fourth graders after lunch too. That was the time they were totally quiet and most attentive.
    AND, your image of your childhood self breaks my heart. You are brilliant, kind and humble! I love your writing.

    Reply
  57. Barbara Ketron - January 10, 2022 4:24 am

    I was a fourth grade teacher for many years and I always read aloud to the kids everyday. I miss that. Harriet the Spy, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, A Wrinkle in Time, etc.

    Reply
  58. RWiegers - January 10, 2022 11:24 am

    Those last two sentences. Killed. Me.

    Reply
  59. Debora - January 13, 2022 12:58 pm

    From another (former) redheaded writer to you, Sean. I have loved the written word since I learned to read from the Dick and Jane readers. I adored our school library. In this hallowed place, I found a world that made me feel welcome. A shy child with auburn hair, knock knees and a painfully thin body, I forgot all the things that made me feel out on the edge, looking in, and I breathed a sigh of relief, when the books wrapped themselves around my heart and mind. I think subconsciously, that is when I wanted to do this magical thing called writing.
    My 7th grade teacher, Mrs. Clarice Cothern, read to us after lunch, too. “The Legend Of Sleepy Hollow”. I loved it!
    Keep telling your stories, Sean. I love them! God Bless you muches!

    Reply
    • Betty Mullaney - January 13, 2022 1:08 pm

      Deborah, I believe you just (unknowingly) described my draw to and love of, the written word. ❤

      Reply
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