A simple writing assignment for students in Karen Gallagher’s English Language Arts classes at Chowchilla’s Wilson Middle School has turned into a book of short stories - and along the way a teacher and her students became very close during an emotional and heartwarming school year.
The 292-page book, 82 Footprints, contains real-life stories written by Gallagher’s eighth grade students - stories that will make you laugh and painful stories that will make you cry - while others will inspire you.
The 13 and 14-year-old students wrote very honest accounts of experiences in their lives that have affected their outlook on a number of subjects.
Topics range from divorce, mistreatment, abandonment, and bullying, to wonderful new experiences, victories and discoveries. The students’ goal was to show others who are going through troubled times that they are not alone, and to help people see what it may be like to walk in another person’s footsteps.
The book has nine chapters: Traumas; Trials and Triumphs; New Experiences and Discoveries; Family; Friend and Tormentors; Lessons Learned; Loss and New Life; Defeat and Determination; and Reflections.
“In was an incredibly profound school year, especially as many of these students are still going through difficult moments in their lives,” Gallagher said. “A lot can happen to young students and these open and honest accounts of their experiences prove it. To say the least, this book has the power to move hearts.”
Started with ordinary assignment
Gallagher said it all started with a seemingly ordinary assignment back in September, when she asked her students to write about a moment in their lives that impacted them in a big way, changing the way they looked at themselves and the world around them.
“It was from the moment students were told, a couple drafts later, that they were actually going to publish their stories into a book - all by themselves - that this project turned into an enormous humanitarian goal and dream.”
Gallagher said her students, many who are struggling readers or writers, could not believe that publishing a book was possible.
“Many of my students face daily personal circumstances that are extremely challenging,” Gallagher said. “Most of all, it takes courage to step forward and share personal stories that are dear to the heart. For each one of these students in small-town Chowchilla, this project has become one of growing importance. Alone, they could do little. Together, they could actually use their experiences to help the world.”
The project lasted seven months, with Gallagher and her students scrambling to complete it within the school year, and as her English students wrote draft after draft, her art students began drawing images that would best depict each story. In all, 122 students (81 English students and 41 art students) participated in what will surely be a memorable project.
Because many of the stories are very personal and sensitive, the students voted to keep their real names from the stories anonymous to protect the students, friends and families.
Gallagher said when her students saw the book for the first time there was a mix of emotions including pride, amazement, accomplishment, and even nervousness about how people might react to their stories.
Students have become closer
“What’s important is that these students have become closer and more compassionate by working together, encouraging each other, reading each story and realizing that everyone has a story to tell,” Gallagher said. “As the project neared completion, students began to see their overall vision materialize and grow, and with it grew the desire to try to do something truly good in the world.”
All the students learned life lessons through the project.
“I just wanted to let people know they are not alone,” Francisco Chaves said.
“Knowing I would be helping someone get through a tough time makes me feel like a better person,” Caitlin Denny said. “I hope people know they’re not alone in their experiences.”
Alli Barragan said at the beginning of the book project, it did not feel much more than just a small story. “But now it feels like everything.”
“I hope to show the world that teens do have a voice,” Samanntha Eastton said.
“I learned that there are many others in this school that have faced even more hardship than I have,” Leo Truong said.
Jaidyn Barberi said that through the book process, she learned that she is not alone in her pain.
“When you are inspired, nothing is impossible - even a bunch of eighth graders from a small town publishing a book,” Sydney Reardon said.
Gallagher said her student’s traumas, emotions, hopes, and dreams have become a part of her.
“So, why is the book called 82 Footprints if there were only 81 students involved?” asked Gallagher. “You’ll have to buy the book to find out.”
The book can be purchased at Branches Books & Gifts in the Old Mill Shopping Center in Oakhurst or online at LuLu.com ($14.95) under the title 82 Footprints. It will be available in eight weeks on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble. All proceeds from the book through LuLu.com online sales will be donated to Valley Children’s Hospital, a choice voted on by the students.
To give a look into the book, here are four stories from 82 Footprints.
Saved by the Wimpy Kid
It was a Thursday in third grade. My teacher had said that it was SSR time. SSR means “Sustained Silent Reading,” and is an activity where you have to read quietly for a specific period of time. She explained SSR to us the day before, and I still somehow forgot to bring a book.
“Where is your book?” my teacher asked. “You were supposed to bring one, remember?”
“Sorry, I forgot my book,” I replied self-consciously. “But don’t worry, I’ll bring one tomorrow, I promise,” I assured her.
“Okay, but next time make sure you bring one because it’s really important for you to read,” she replied while sighing.
I felt like an outsider watching the other kids read and seeing them stare at me with their big eyes and weird face gestures, making me feel ashamed for not bringing a book.
I knew that I would get in trouble if I didn’t bring a book the next day, so I told my older sister about the situation as soon as I got home. She promptly took me to the Chowchilla Library.
“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I could have brought you a long time ago to get a book,” my sister chided me while on our way there.
When we got there, we entered a big tall building full of old people, very strict librarians, and young kids. My sister signed papers, and soon enough, I got my own library card. I realized how important the card is, so I took great care handling it.
We then went to go find books. I couldn’t decide on what type of book I wanted, so I let my sister choose. She chose five books, and the minute I got home, my sister made me start reading to get a look at the books and choose the one to take to school tomorrow. I read through all the books and found most of them boring. They were about dinosaur bones and science. I found them dull and uninteresting, and I couldn’t seem to find any enjoyment in any of them. Reading was just not fun. I went through them, book by book. There was nothing that grabbed my attention.
Finally, the last book I came across was Diary Of A Wimpy Kid. I opened the pages and began to read. It was one funny and crazy book. I was immediately hooked. I just completely devoured that book and read it the whole rest of the afternoon.
I thought of it as my one and only child, and took it everywhere I went, taking great care of it at every moment. That very same day, just before the library closed, my sister and I returned to the library to return the boring books and check out more Wimpy Kid books. Excitement about my decision vibrated in every bone in my body. In fact, I felt so great the rest of that day that I could have kissed everybody I encountered at that moment.
The next day at school, I was ready for SSR. I whipped out my book in the most manly way and started reading like everyone else. For once, I wasn’t an outsider anymore, and I felt like I was the king of the world.
“Okay, class. Put away your books. SSR time is over,” my teacher called out.
I didn’t put my book away. I just left it on my desk. Time to time, as the lesson went on in class, I would sneak-read without the teacher knowing. That’s how much I wanted to read.
Unfortunately, my teacher caught me. She gave me a warning. I ignored her. My book was promptly taken away.
My eyes stared at that book in the distance. I couldn’t control myself. I couldn’t even concentrate on anything else at that moment. I wanted my book back, and I wanted to read. Although later I regretted what I did, showing my anger toward my teacher and not listening in class, at that point I didn’t really care. I didn’t even care if I got in trouble. I just wanted that book.
My teacher noticed. She took me aside in private.
“I need to talk to you after class, Michael,” she told me. I nodded that I understood. A sudden flood of worry immediately swept over me. What would she say? Would I get my book back? Was I going to get more in trouble?
By the end of class, the anxiety had grown. Desperate, I begged my teacher for my book back. I explained to her everything, how I had first felt about reading, how I had gone to the library, how I had searched for books, how they had all been so boring, and how I had finally found a book I loved. She listened as I spoke.
There was a long, painful pause when I finished. I held my breath.
Luckily for me, she understood everything. She smiled, reached over for the book, and placed it in my hands.
Once I got home, I couldn’t stop reading. I was fully addicted to those books. In fact, I wouldn’t even eat, I was so addicted. I didn’t stop until I finished reading every single one of them.
If it weren’t for that first book, hooking me up to the rest of the series, I don’t think I would ever have enjoyed reading as much as I do today.
How many others in life could say that they were saved by the Wimpy Kid?
Fridays With Grandpa
By Lizzy Marie James
Ever since I was 3, I spent every Friday with my grandpa. My mom, grandma, grandpa, and I called it “Grandpa Fridays.” It is safe to say that my Grandpa Jim was my childhood best friend.
He would pull me out of preschool around 11 o’clock in his 1965 teal Chevrolet truck. We would go have lunch at Ryan’s Place, which is now Black Bear Diner, and we would pretty much order the same thing every time. After we had lunch, we would head back to the “yard.” The “yard” was his house. Not only would we go have lunch together on Fridays, we would also go trucking. My mom’s dad owned a trucking business that was run at their house.
Before we loaded up in the big truck, we would go out and feed his dog, Buddy. Buddy was kept on a line that ran vertically right before you got to the big trucks, so he was the “guard dog.” According to my cousins, Buddy was always mean and scary, but they just weren’t as loving of animals as I was, so I always thought he was super sweet. After feeding and watering Buddy, we would say goodbye to the ladies in the office, who were my mom, aunt, and grandma, and we would head out.
Every Friday, there was always a different destination. Sometimes it was Patterson or Gustine, or other times, it was just around Los Banos, Kagome or Morning Star. It didn’t matter where we would go, because I knew there would always be a smile on my face.
I remember, at every stop we made, I would go inside to use the restroom, and I would always ask for a quarter so I could get a candy out of the twisting machines. The funny thing is, I got the same candy every time, yet I didn’t actually like it. It was a pink and white candy shaped like Mike ‘n Ike candies, black licorice on the inside covered with some kind of hard frosting. When my grandpa was done checking in, we would load back up and go to the next location. As I sat in the passenger seat and ate my candies, I would throw the licorice part out of the window.
“Why do you continue to throw your candy out of the window?” He asked me that many times, only to hear the same answer every time.
“Grandpa, I told you last time, remember?” I said, giggling. “I don’t like black licorice. It’s nasty.”
“Oh, that’s right,” he said, tilting his head back to act like he forgot. “I remember now.”
“Would you like the black licorice?” I asked as I ate another candy.
“No, thank you.” Grandpa laughed. “I agree with you, black licorice is gross. Just keep throwing them out the window.”
I can still hear and see him laughing at me because I did that every week. Even though he knew I didn’t like the licorice, he never told me to stop getting that candy.
I remember cruising in his blue Peterbilt down I-5 in the passenger seat with the window down and wind in my face, acting like I was a big girl because I was riding in this big truck. I remember looking out the window and then turning to see my grandpa driving and smiling because I loved spending Fridays with him.
Then, it was like I blinked, and he was no longer driving that truck.
“Grandma, where is Grandpa,” I remember asking, walking inside the house.
She hesitated to tell me. “He is in heaven now.”
“Why, Grandma,” I asked, kind of knowing what it meant. “Is he coming back?”
“No,” she said, tearing up.
I started crying, too, because I figured out that he had passed away.
To help me feel a little better about the situation, Grandma said, “God needed the best truck driver there was to work for him. He needed Grandpa in heaven to help him work.” She grinned, kind of cheering up. I giggled. “God got the best truck driver,” I replied, remembering the times I spent with him in the truck.
I hadn’t been told right away because I was only 5. My parents, grandma, aunts and uncles needed to figure everything out before they could finally tell the grandchildren. For this 5-year-old girl whose world was changed because her best friend died, Fridays gained a whole new meaning. Once a day of celebration and joy, Fridays became a memory of my grandfather.
I knew exactly what it meant when my mom and grandma told me that my grandpa passed away. It meant that I would never see my best friend again. My best friend was gone, and there was no longer going to be “Grandpa Fridays.”
At the time my grandpa was alive, there were six grandchildren, and of those six grandchildren, I always felt like I was his favorite grandchild. He made me feel that way. Of the six of us, I was the most upset. Of the six of us, I spent the most time with him. Of the six, I missed him the most. I remember the first Friday that passed since he died; I cried and cried and cried, because from now on, Fridays were going to be different.
I miss my best friend very much. My life, as well as my mom’s family’s life, would be totally different if my grandpa were still alive today. My mom might still be working at the family business, or my cousins and I might be closer. There is no telling what would be different, but what we do know is that my grandpa has always been watching over us since he has passed.
When he died, my grandma always told me, “The first brightest star of the night is your grandfather telling you that he is here with you.” That helped me get through life without him for the first few weeks.
That 5-year-old girl’s best friend might have died, but my number one guardian angel was, and still is, always looking over me.
Now that I am 14, my time will come soon when I will be able to drive. Often times, I go outside to my grandpa’s 1965 Chevrolet truck and sit in the passenger seat, just to think. Sitting in that truck, I can remember all the memories we shared. And when I finally get to drive, I know that my grandpa will be sitting right beside me.
From 7th grade to 8th grade, I’ve changed a lot. My whole mindset on life has changed. Back in 7th grade, I didn’t really have much of a care for school or my education. I’ve always thought that school didn’t matter, that going to school wasn’t going to get me anywhere in life, that it was just a big waste of my time. Over the summer after 7th grade, I finally opened my eyes.
I saw how tired my mom came home from work.
She works from 4:30 in the morning till 4:30 in the afternoon, but when she comes home she doesn’t sit down to rest. She starts cleaning and making food for the next day.
One day, my mom sat me down and told me, “When the new school year comes, try your best to never give up because with school you can achieve anything in life. Because if you take me as an example, I didn’t finish school. I didn’t have the opportunity of going to school like you do.”
Ever since my mom told me those words, I started focusing on school. I started focusing on my future, getting inspiration from my mom.
My mom is a hard-working woman. Every day, before she leaves to work, she makes me breakfast. Every day before she leaves to work, she wakes me up and tells me she loves me. Then she starts her way to the fields.
While she’s harvesting, she’s not only working for the money, she’s also working to feed five kids. Every grapevine she ties together is a mouthful of food for us. If it weren’t for my mom, I wouldn’t have the things I have now.
When it’s my mom’s day off, we usually eat a nice, delicious breakfast together. Then we snuggle up and watch some TV, or get ready to go somewhere together. My mom has managed to keep a smile on my face for 13 amazing years, and I thank her for that. My mom is the best thing that has ever happened to me, and I’m glad to be her daughter.
Back in 7th grade, I would just shrug off the all the opportunities I had and wouldn’t care about my grades. But, this year in 8th grade, I’ve been taking most of the opportunities given to me because I like making my mom proud of me. Without the inspiration of my mom, I wouldn’t have the courage to try in school.
Bars and Barbed Wire
It had been six years since I had seen or even heard from him.
“Mom, where is my brother?”
Often there would be no answer from her. Or, she would tell me that he was “at work.” She made me think that everything was okay, but it wasn’t.
Months passed by, and that’s when it finally hit me. My mom told me that my brother had gone to jail for a shooting that he didn’t do. It was pretty much just like all of us when we are at the wrong place at the wrong time. I cried. There was a dark hole in my heart. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.
I would write him letters because of how much I missed him, telling him how I was doing in school. He received one of my letters, and he wrote back. In my letter, I had told him that I missed him and asked when he was going to come back home to me. He drew me a picture of Mickey Mouse. It was really cool. I loved it.
My mom had to work even harder than she already did because now she needed to put money on my brother’s books. That means that she had to pay money to the jail so he could buy food, soda, soap and other items that he needed while he was in jail. My mom was a single mom working to raise four kids alone, all at the same time that this was going on with my brother.
One day my mom called me into her room and told me someone had called for me. I looked at her eyes, and it looked like she was crying. I could tell because underneath her eyes were black and swollen patches like someone had abused her. I knew there was something wrong. I reached for the phone, and I started to talk.
At the words my brother said, I started crying. My heart dropped, and my emotions felt like I got run over by a car. It hurt, but I still was standing.
It was hard for me. My brother and I talked for a little bit, and then I gave my mom the phone because I couldn’t take it. It was hard hearing my brother’s angry, roaring voice talking to me. He had been hearing about all the problems I had been causing and about all the trouble I had been getting into. As he kept talking, it felt as if he were getting closer and closer, as if he wanted to hit me for all of it. I was devastated. And I knew I deserved it.
Then, for the first time in five years, I went to go see him in person.
It was a long drive, and I started to get nervous. My hands started to shake, and my face was turning pale.
I was a bad kid. I knew it, my mom knew it, and he knew it. When I went to go see him that day, I knew my mom had been telling him all the bad things that I was doing. For example, if I talked back to my mom or was bad in school, he would know. He knew everything. And now I had to face him as well as myself.
My dad turned the car onto a long road. All I saw was barbed wire along the side of the road, cacti and dirt. Lots of dirt. It was cold. It had been raining earlier that day, and now it was cold.
I saw the gate entrance. There was a guard booth where cars had to give IDs in order to enter the prison gates. My dad rolled down the window and handed his ID to the officer in the booth. The officer had two guns in a holster around his waist. There was no expression on his face. He waved us through.
We drove along a windy road, like in the mountains. There were several prisons at this location, a women’s prison, a juvenile facility, and a men’s prison. We made our way to the men’s section. My dad parked the car in a large parking lot, in a space closest to the building, because we didn’t want to walk. We made our way to the building. It was a square building, dull grey, with windows that you couldn’t see through. There was a tall fence surrounding the prison. The left side was extra tall, the only side with the barbed wire.
The visitors were supposed to wait outside the building until they were called to go in. All visitors received a number, and a woman officer occasionally would come out, calling the numbers to let people in. We waited outside.
At last it was our turn to get checked. The officers made my dad, sister, and me take off our shoes and walk to this tube-like monitor or something. There was a red light that started at your stomach, and it would go up and down, head to toe. I was scared. What are they looking at? What are they looking for? I felt this kind of heat in my body, like a nervous heat feeling. Once we were done, we walked out this one door that everyone was crowding though after the officers were done going through everything.
We walked into this other building where they had small tables and chairs. My dad told me that the tables and chairs are small so that we can’t pass anything under it to the prisoners.
My brother finally came out. He sat at the table. He looked different from before. People in jail had jumped him before he went to prison, and his nose had been broken.
I was scared. My heart was beating, and I did not know how to react. He walked over to our table, and I was the first one he looked at. I was nervous. My hands were shaking, and my heart was beating as if I just finished a marathon before I saw him.
He kept looking at me. At last, his voice broke the silence.
“What you been up to?’’ he asked.
I didn’t want to answer because of how scared I was. I didn’t have the guts to say anything. As the visit went on, I started to talk more, and we got to know each other a little better. Even though it had been five years, I got to know a little bit. We talked about his experiences in prison.
We had a limited time to talk. And then it was time to part.
I had a million emotions running through me. I didn’t know what to feel; I was so broken down. I knew I wouldn’t see him again, maybe for a long, long time. But we had a good time while it lasted.
As soon as we left, I started to cry. I was very emotional and upset, but more with myself than him. I cried myself to sleep that night. It was the only thing that helped me during that time.
A year passed. I didn’t hear from him, nor did I even see him.
One day I went to my uncle’s house. My uncle was talking about my brother. I heard a few words here and there. He was talking about how my brother was getting closer to home. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I didn’t want to know what they were talking about. So I just stayed out of it.
That night my mom told me the news. My brother had come home, and she was going to see him. I couldn’t believe it.
Now that my brother is home, my mom wants us to have more family time. I was so happy when he came home. Now he has a job, and he got the car he always wanted. He is trying to do good for himself and his family.
He is finally home!