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The Life-Changing Moments that Resulted in the MCT Curriculum

by Michael Clay Thompson

In my history with Royal Fireworks Press, there have been two momentous events without which the MCT curriculum would never have been possible.

One was, clearly, my first encounter with Dr. Tom Kemnitz, the very embodiment of fanaticism about curriculum and the lives of children that I myself felt. The MCT language arts curriculum reveals the intense dream that the two of us had at its inception, three decades ago. In our first conversation, we discussed changing the face of American education, and I do believe that in the decades since then we have produced uncompromising books that shattered the limitations of language arts textbooks and put the students’ experience with the books at the center.

Tom not only was willing but was intensely committed to doing whatever we needed to do with the books, such as produce wider margins and color combinations and fewer words per page and poetic language and powerful graphics and stronger intellectual content and so forth, all of which increased the cost of production but resulted in completely different books for children. Today we are more fanatical than ever about it.

But for me, that is not how all of this began. What led me to Tom? It began when a life-altering person, Dr. Julie Long, told me to get my lesson plans published. The work I did after my incredulity subsided, and the long search for a publisher, led me to Royal Fireworks Press. Along the way, I had an offer from a different publisher, but they wanted me to turn the program into worksheets, which I refused to do, and I withdrew the book from them, thinking that I would never again have a publishing offer.

Dr. Long’s forceful insistence was the turning point for me, and so it was with bitter sadness that I learned of her death in November 2015. What follows is what I wrote immediately upon learning that sad fact.

A Tribute to Dr. Julie Long

I have just learned that my dear friend Julie Long has died. I had become worried when she did not answer my emails. Several decades ago, she changed my life in a sentence. I was a bit of a lost soul at that point, having returned to education after an adventure as a stockbroker, and I was trying to get certified to teach gifted education in North Carolina. I drove up to a conference in Mars Hill, and everyone was hurrying to get to Dr. Long’s presentation, which I had also identified as one that I would like to hear. I had never heard of her. But there, in a window-filled classroom, standing on a dais, was Dr. Long, a charismatic phenomenon. She was a combination of Gloria Steinem and Gina Lollobrigida, and she had total command of the room.

It was not just her command of the knowledge but also her brilliant and witty way of articulating it that captured us all. It was wow. It seemed as though the presentation was over in ten seconds. I sheepishly went up to her as the room emptied, introduced myself, and asked her if she could possibly do some independent study courses with me because I was living way in the woods and needed to get certified. She looked right through me. “Can’t do it,” she said. “I have no time. Good luck.” And she was gone. Poof.

Every several months afterward, I would see her at a conference or other event, and I would always ask if she could please do independent study classes with me. “Nope. Can’t do it. No time.” Eventually I wore her down. “All right,” she said, “tell me what you need.” We worked out some courses, and I studied hard.

Then one day I showed her some vocabulary lesson plans I had made, and she stared at me and said, “I refuse to give you a grade in my class unless you agree to get this published.” I protested and hemmed and hawed, but she just gave me the evil eye and said, “You heard me.”

For the next several months, I worked like a demon to convert lesson plans into a book—there is a big difference. Disappointing her was an impossibility.

Finally, I showed it to her, and she said good, and she wrote me a letter to include, and I began sending it to publishers (along with a letter from Dr. Zoa Rockenstein), and it became The Word Within the Word, published by Royal Fireworks Press.

I was in my late thirties then. In my life, no teacher had ever told me that I could write—not in elementary or middle or high school, not in college or university. It took this immovable, fierce brain to push me in a direction that would make me happy. She believed in me years before I did.

Over the years, Julie and I had always kept in touch. If I was speaking nearby, we would meet for lunch or coffee. We sent emails back and forth, usually savage emails directed at the forces of evil that are arrayed against tolerance. Julie was always hilarious, and satirical, and merciless, and literate, and cosmopolitan, and human, and brilliant. She is irreplaceable. She is irreplaceable to me.

In 2010 the South Carolina Consortium for Gifted Education gave Michael an award, and Julie came to the presentation. The photograph above is from that day.

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