I had to think about how to reach my students online, and that’s when I started with the idea of a book. I draw a lot of coloring pages that kids have at school, so I was thinking about a series of those that kids could download. And then it grew into an actual children’s book.
Heidi Cowley ’11 has teaching in her blood. Cowley has taught art for kindergarten to 5th grade at Page Hilltop School in Ayer for the past 14 years, and her grandmother, Mildred (Crooker) Hassett, a 1917 graduate of the Normal School at Fitchburg (known today as Fitchburg State University) was also an educator. Times were different for her grandmother, though. Teachers in that era weren’t allowed to be married, for one thing. But Cowley learned about an unexpected parallel in her family history this spring.
Her grandmother was teaching in Athol when the influenza pandemic of 1918 shuttered schools. In one of the detailed journals that Cowley recently discovered, Crooker wrote on Sept. 24 of that year that nine of her 14 students were absent. The following day the school was closed, and Crooker was out of work. She took the train from Athol back to her parents’ home in Fitchburg, found another job, and eventually married and started a family.
Cowley, who completed a master’s degree in visual arts education at Fitchburg State, is grateful she had other options. “I had to think about how to reach my students online, and that’s when I started with the idea of a book,” she said. “I draw a lot of coloring pages that kids have at school, so I was thinking about a series of those that kids could download. And then it grew into an actual children’s book. I recorded myself reading it and shared the video with my kids.”
The result was a self-published book, Just Staying Home, that has already resonated with readers with its messages about adapting to the new reality of no sports or play dates. The book also encourages kids to do what's right, be kind to their families and even jokes that they’ve got time to clean their rooms.
“I had a mom of one second-grader tell me that her son, who is really reluctant to write, thought I drew him writing in the book,” she said. “I thought I was done when I sent it to the kids, but I’ve had a lot of people ask me about it. When a nurse from a pediatric intensive care unit asked for multiple copies, it really pushed me to find a way to get it published. If it’s a way to help people reach others and feel connected, that’s good.”
Just Stay Home will be available via Blurb.com in standard and coloring book formats.
Cowley looks forward to being back with her students, and in the meantime encourages them to record their experiences of the current time, just as her grandmother did. “I think there’s a hopefulness to it,” she said. “If she’d stayed a teacher, she wouldn’t have gotten married to my grandfather and not had a family. Maybe there’s a hopefulness in seeing this has happened before, and we’ve come through it.”
This story was first published in the Summer 2020 edition of Contact, the university's alumni magazine.