Local art teacher draws inspiration for book from “just staying home”

Heidi Cowley with her new work.

AYER – Page Hilltop Elementary School Art teacher Heidi Cowley would rather be in school, as would her colleagues and her students. Instead, they’re all staying home due to the Covid-19 pandemic and a state-wide shut-down in March that brought just about everything – and everybody — to an abrupt halt, including the school year, which ended nearly three months early.

Cowley’s routine changed in a heartbeat, from teaching 550 kids a week in her classroom to zero, she said. But she’s been putting the downtime to good use.

In addition to teaching classes remotely and planning at-home art activities for her K-5th grade students, Cowley used the unexpected time off to write, illustrate and launch the process of self-publishing a children’s book, accomplishing all of it in record time.

Cowley drew inspiration – and the book’s title – “Just Staying Home,” from the situation she found herself in.

Unexpected, unwelcome, but not as unique as it seemed.

Cowley’s grandmother, Mildred Hassett, a teacher in Athol during the 1918 flu epidemic, described a similar situation in her journals, which Cowley recently found. Reading them helped her link the present to the past, she said, bringing history home.

Schools closed then, too, as students, staff and whole families fell ill.

Hassett was a graduate of the Fitchburg Normal School, a teacher’s training school that later became a state college and eventually, Fitchburg State University.

In those days, female teachers had to quit when they married, Cowley said, so becoming a teacher was a life choice as well as a career. “You couldn’t even keep company with men,” she said.

Her grandmother lived with her dog in a boarding house near the school. After moving to Fitchburg to live with her twin brother, she married her brother’s friend, ending her career.

But Hassett was still teaching on Sept. 24, 1918, when she wrote in her journal that nine students were absent from her class of 14. “And Mr. Jones (the principal?) still wants me to hold play practice!” The school closed next day at noon. “It was a long shut-down,” Cowley said.

This one is, too. Long enough for Cowley – who has taught at Page Hilltop for 14 years – to complete a book project that wasn’t on the drawing board to begin with. “I didn’t plan this…it evolved,” she said.

The book grew from a coloring book format, with verses, to a rhymed story line, with pictures. “I took videos of myself reading it,” she said. It was, in part, a teaching tool. At some point in the narrative, Cowley stops to speak to her audience. “Write about what you’re doing…” she urges. “Someday, your grandkids may read it.”

Cowley had some of the right stuff in her classroom already, illustrations she keeps on hand as coloring pages for students who finish their assignments early.

To begin with, she hoped the shut-down was temporary and that her book would be a long-term sideline. “I thought we’d still go back,” she said.

She soon learned otherwise and she knows it’s tough on the kids. “No sports, no play dates, no travel…missing their friends.” But we all help, she writes, “by doing what’s right.” At home, “be kind to your family.” Other suggestions: “Go out and rake/come in and bake/do some math/take a bath.”

And write about what you’re up to. “Being bored is okay/our most creative ideas can come that way.”

With her book-reading video out there, on line and channeled to kids via Page Hilltop and ASRSD facebook pages, Crowley drew encouragement, early on, from viewer comments.

One parent told her that her son, who didn’t like to write, started to write his own stories after identifying with the boy in her book. “He sees himself…literally” in the character, she said. Another noteworthy denizen kids might tune into turs up on just about every page, a cute black cat named Opie.

Networking came next, some of it apparently serendipitous. After sharing the book with her book club, for example, a friend’s husband, who is an author, suggested recording an audio book, Cowley said, and she’s been asked to interview for a podcast on I Heart Radio, called “Reading With Your Kids.”

But as successful as her book project has been so far, Cowley longs to get back to her students, her classroom, where “big projects” such as metal tooling were underway when the schools closed. Picking up where she left off won’t be easy. “We have to figure it out,” she said.

Cowley keeps her links humming, with on-line faculty meetings, unified arts sessions and mentoring, among other things. And if she’s mulling future book projects, her grandmother’s journals might be a good place to start.