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Alex Horvath / The Californian

Columnist Valerie Schultz

The first thing to share about Career Day is that it takes place annually at an elementary school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The second thing is that the school's principal is my cousin. She is such a productive and dynamic principal that her superiors move her around, because she leaves a school in remarkably better shape than she found it. She is like the School Whisperer. When my cousin takes charge, a school in an impoverished area becomes a beacon of hope for the community. I remember the helpful hint to distinguish the homonyms "principal" and "principle" -- "the principal is my pal " -- and I realize that my cousin really is a pal to everyone she works with: teachers, parents, staff and especially students. She epitomizes dedication and the can-do spirit, and she does it all with an abiding faith in education.

So my second Career Day was on a different campus from the one I attended several years ago. My husband and I went together, he to talk about being a university professor and the value of a college education, I to talk about being a writer. We joined about 40 other volunteers to spend the morning at Hooper Avenue Elementary School. Each visitor got to speak to two different classes. My husband and I missed the opening assembly, even though we left Tehachapi at 5 a.m., due to traffic jams on all three of the freeways we took. Thankfully, we made it to the classroom sessions, and then got treated to lunch and a parting gift.

I outlined the process of writing a weekly newspaper column, but I decided to talk about my day job as well: working in a prison library. It occurred to me that some of these kids might know someone in prison, which can be a heavy burden for a child to carry. Some of their eyes widened at the word "prison," but I hoped to present a positive spot within a system that has negative PR. I told them that the library where I work is a place of learning and information. It is a large sunny room full of books, an oasis of relative calm, a sanctuary from the yard. I told them that sometimes grown-ups go through grade school and still don't know how to read, but that people are never too old to learn. ("Maybe they didn't pay attention in class," offered one scholar. "Or didn't do their homework," another solemnly added.) I said that there are some fine writers in prison, who find the library a helpful place to work on their creations, and that writing is a discipline that enhances just about any job or endeavor.

Third-graders are surprisingly knowledgeable about the practice of writing. One student asked me what was my favorite part of my job as a writer.

"I like the work you do after you first write something," I said. "You know what a rough draft is?"

They all nodded. Of course they knew what a rough draft was: They write stuff all the time.

"Well," I said, "I like the part where you take a second look at your rough draft, where you change things and fix things and make the whole piece better."

A student raised his hand. "You mean editing?" he asked politely.

"Editing. Exactly," I said lamely.

I gave the kids bookmarks, and my husband handed out swag from Cal State Bakersfield. On the drive home, on which we hit no traffic at all, my husband told me that in his presentation, he told the students that in order to get to college, they had to fall in love with learning. When he was leaving each room, he asked them, "What do you have to fall in love with?" To which 35 kids yelled, "LEARNING!" Which made me fall in love with him a little more.

We talked about the truth of many people's careers, or at least our careers: that a career sometimes chooses you in a series of unpredictable turns in the road. But is any good served by recounting the chances and vagaries of life to schoolchildren? It's best to stick with the concept of discovering what you love to do, what gives you joy, and then figuring out how to turn that passion into a paying job. All kinds of crazy, wonderful things can happen after that. Career Day reminded us how lucky we are to work at what we love.

The students, teachers, and staff we met were warm and welcoming, curious and courteous. Hooper Avenue Elementary School's mission is this: "Our students exit this door with the skills and the drive to enrich their family, their community and the world." I hope the students learned about some cool jobs on Career Day -- there were therapy dogs and fire engines -- but really, I think their best example of success at this commendable mission is their very own principal.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her