OXFORD — It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but in reality, it is much more powerful than that.
A teacher, an author and a DARE officer gathered at Oxford Elementary School recently – along with the entire fifth grade – in the culmination of a health unit on healthy choices, which tackled the taboo of heroin and opioid addiction head on.
Every student in fifth grade, along with fifth grade humanities teacher Melissa Guerrette and DARE Officer Rickie Jack, read advanced copies of Kate Messner’s “The Seventh Wish.”
It is a modern retelling of the Brothers Grimm’s, “The Fisherman and his Wife.” The main character, young Charlie, is an Irish step dancer living in a fishing village, where she catches a magic fish that offers her a wish for its freedom. Charlie’s wishes become more serious as she and her family have to deal with her college-aged sister’s addiction to heroin.
“It is probably the toughest book I’ve ever written,” Messner said before last month’s assembly in the Oxford Elementary School gym. The free author visit was sponsored by her publisher, Bloomsbury.
This is saying a lot, as she has 24 published books and 12 more in the hopper.
“My book before this ‘All the Answers’ was a book that deals with realistic kids’ lives but with a dash of magic,” she added. “I knew that I wanted to explore that again and write a book with that situation.”
Guerrettee is a self-admitted fan of Messner’s and called her “a role model in the literary world.” Messner was already familiar with Oxford Elementary and its staff and students, as they chose two of her books for last year’s OES Reads program and she regularly Skyped with the school’s population.
“The students have grown to love Kate and appreciate her. They have a little bit of ownership … they feel like they know Kate personally more than other authors,” Guerrette said. “We, of course, were all looking forward to ‘The Seventh Wish,’ which we knew she was working on.”
“The kids at this school have seen the book grow up,” she said.
A bulletin board in the hallway featured Kids Blurbs from Guerrette’s fifth- and sixth-grade students, who shared short reviews about the book. The humanities teacher read the book in one sitting and immediately knew this was an important book that would tie in perfectly for the upcoming 10-week DARE class.
“Books are doors – they open doors to conversations about things but yet at the same time have a way of keeping things distant enough that kids can learn about things without them feeling immediately personal,” Guerrette said. “I think [it] is what this book did for a lot of our students. … . At some point in their life, this is going to be an issue that will come up and to have talked about it and built caring and empathy around the reality of addiction, I think is one way of working towards breaking down some of that stigma.”
This is Jack’s 10th year teaching DARE at Oxford Elementary School, which is the only school in the district that hosts this program which is paid for strictly through donations. He works full-time as a sergeant at the Oxford Police Department and noted the growing drug problem in local communities.
“If you listen to the scanner every week there is an overdose and it’s almost every other night,” he said.
As part of DARE, Jack decided to kick it up a notch and this year held a show-and-tell of seized drug paraphernalia, which also included a slide show and photographs. The school sent home parent and guardian notifications about the twist on the traditional show-and-tell.
“I didn’t really think it would go really well,” Jack said, but to his knowledge there were no protests about the program. He said the staff at Oxford Elementary School has been extremely supportive of his program and efforts.
He noted this DARE class was a special one and this year has been an emotional year for him, as he has connected with students and vice versa. Part of his recipe for success, he believes, is his approach in dealing with the serious topic of drugs and alcohol and making healthy choices.
“I am not coming into this school, standing here stamping my feet, saying, ‘Don’t do drugs, don’t drink alcohol, don’t do this, don’t do that,’” Jack said. “I am coming in here showing them you have choices and these are the consequences of the choices you make. … They always have options.”
Messner, who is a resident of northern New York and lives on Lake Champlain, said “The Seventh Wish” was inspired by her neighbors, who she described “a happy functional family shattered by opioid addiction.”
Messner saw her neighbor, as she was getting out of her car a couple of years ago, who told her she was having the worst day of her life as she learned terrible news about her daughter.
“’Mikayla told me she’s hooked on heroin,’” Messner recalled her neighbor saying. “The fact that she was able to do that probably saved her life. She recovered. … I can’t talk about this without getting goosebumps.”
And Mikayla was willing to talk with Messner to give her a glimpse into the very real and very scary world of heroin addiction. This gave her inside knowledge to make her novel as real as possible.
But not everyone thinks books that deal with heroin addiction are appropriate for young children. Before arriving in Oxford, Messner received an email earlier in the week from a library in Pennsylvania informing her it would not carry “The Seventh Wish.” The reasoning was the staff believed it was inappropriate for elementary school children.
“I’ve never had a book challenged before this week, so this is an unusual, tough week,” Messner said. “I know [addiction] is an issue. I don’t think it’s helpful to ignore it. … I think it’s an important conversation to have and have access to a wide range of ages.”
The staff at Oxford Elementary and Jack disagreed with the Pennsylvania library’s assessment of the book. Jack said he absolutely thought it was appropriate for fifth-grade students.
“I would love to have this book be a regular part of my DARE program every year with the kids,” he said. “It shows these kids how it starts in the families, then how it progresses and how the problem becomes more prevalent until they see it more and more until it’s fully disclosed.”
Just before the end of the assembly, the students surprised Messner and Jack with a video they made featuring letters they wrote to their future selves. The DARE program normally ends with this, but the kids made a more powerful video than the traditional paper letters. It showed most, if not all of the faces, of the fifth-grade students reading excerpts of their letters, reminding themselves of what they learned and to be strong when it came time to make healthy choices.
“We’re both sitting here with tears in our eyes,” Jack told the students as he and Messner wiped at their eyes.
“You know what you guys, you are going to be great, you are. Thank you for that. I think that is so powerful what you made,” Messner told the students. “I think what you did here cannot just remind future you, but future everybody.”