It’s not every day one gets to meet a successful published author, especially if you are in the third grade; however, an exceptional group of students from Frederick Wilson Benteen Elementary School (FWBES) can now say they have not only met one but also received a free copy of an award-winning book.
Their private audience with J. Dillard, author of J.D. and the Great Barber Battle, was a reward for being the top learners in their class and for reading the most minutes this school year. They were also a cohort of resilient students who began the COVID-19 pandemic as kindergartners and, three years later, still have a zeal for reading.
Arranging for the students to meet Dillard was a treat many members of the faculty were happy to see realized— especially when finding new ways to incentivize reading is an ongoing mission.
“We keep trying to find more ways to get our kids excited about reading and they are taking the charge,” said Dr. Andrew Lovett, Jr., Principal of FWBES. “They have exceeded our goals for Race2Read. They have exceeded our goals for Beanstack. They have been reading all year long.”
Providing students with opportunities to be excited about literacy through culturally relevant content and remaining consistent in implementing programming to support their love of reading are just two examples of the APS 5 at work. Hearing from authors like Dillard exposes students to the kind of instruction that supplements what they typically experience in the classroom.
As the students filed into the school library one-by-one and sat on the floor with legs crossed, one could feel their excitement at this rare opportunity to meet the person who wrote about the amazing 8-year-old who started a thriving barber business in response to an embarrassing experience.
The students soon learned that the character J.D. was inspired by a pivotal event in Dillard’s childhood when he received a bad home haircut and suffered humiliating remarks from his classmates.
“My mom gave me such a bad haircut and she still made me get up and go to school the very next day, which [was] the first day of third grade,” said Dillard. “When I came back home, I took it upon myself [that] I would never be embarrassed or teased ever again in life.”
Dillard picked up a pair of clippers, started cutting his own hair, and eventually became his classmates’ go-to stylist. Today, he is a master barber and entrepreneur who services celebrity clients across the globe but has always had a desire to inspire others. A fun fact the students learned would be the catalyst for Dillard penning his book series, in which readers learn about financial literacy, overcoming obstacles, and family camaraderie.
“I knew I just wanted to get my voice out there,” said Dillard. “I wanted to be here in this space right now with you guys to [encourage] you all.”
And just two years after publishing the first of the J.D. The Kid Barber three-book series, Dillard was at FWBES passing on the lessons he has learned to aspiring young writers and encouraging them to transfer their stories to paper.
“You never have a stupid idea,” said Dillard. “Every day you wake up, you [can] create your own reality. Whatever you think of, begin to write those things down.”
He also advised the students to pull concepts from significant events in their lives and incorporate pieces of their favorite people’s personalities into their character’s narratives. Dillard also charged students to always leave their stories open for continuation.
“Continue to read. Continue to build your memorization. Continue to make an impact and [create] change,” said Dillard. “Because once again, you have an opportunity to create your own reality. I would like to see you in this position one day— to come back and affect the youth.”
Before departing, each student received a copy of J.D. and the Great Barber Battle, and a Summer Badge Book, which consists of a reading log, calendar, and activity guide.
As the students enthusiastically chanted, “Just keep reading!”, it was apparent they would do just that and potentially more—perhaps write their own stories. Meeting J. Dillard and reading about his life showed that third graders could do anything.