4th of July School Visit Lessons from Dad


4th of July parade in Wakefield, Massachusetts. My dad, Ernest Francis "Tip" O'Neill, with his best friend, John Mahoney, sports his "flag" socks as they cheer a marching band.

It dawned on me the other day that so much of what I learned about doing school visits, I learned from my dad – on the 4th of July. And this was years before I even thought about becoming a children’s book writer.

I grew up in Wakefield, Massachusetts on a dead-end street with ten houses. At the upper end, through the little woods, was my elementary school. At the lower end, across the street, was a park called Moulton Playground. In the park was the West Side Social Club, the group that organized a 4th of July parade every year, and the park was where the bands, cheerleaders, majorettes, marchers, politicians, Revolutionary Patriots, and floats mustered before heading out on the parade route. My dad was a member of that club. And 4th of July was his favorite holiday.

So here’s what I learned from Dad:

Be prepared. We lugged picnic benches and beach chairs down to the bottom of our street early in the morning to save our spots for watching the parade. Today, I always arrive early at the schools I visit to scope out the layout and rearrange any furniture that needs moving.

Embrace crowds.Every year our backyard was packed with friends, neighbors, relatives and strays. Everyone was welcome. Today, my mantra is, the more the merrier in an audience. Something magical happens when an event is shared by many.

A sampling of the many of our friends who gathered in front of Mr. McIntosh's house to catch the parade.


Give people something to do. Whether the task was to bring food, champion the grill, keep the little kids busy, replenish plates, or clean up, everyone played a role in the success of the day. Today, I involve all audience members, whether in a group task or as individual volunteers, in my school visit assemblies, so that they all have a hand in the success of the event.

Do something a little surprising. Dad worked as a shipper in a clothing factory. He always bought a few (illegal) fireworks from the truck drivers coming up from the South. With these “surprises,” dusk on the 4th brought a bit of sparkle and flash. Today, the “sparkle and flash” I add to assemblies is a bit of music and group singing, which surprises audiences who expect a talking head.

Dad, Donna and Alexis

It’s impossible to fail. Dad planned a great day with all those friends, neighbors, relatives and strays. Everyone expected to have a good time when they came to our house. No matter the small glitches, nothing distracted from this. He knew that when you are among friends, you cannot fail. They want you to succeed. Today, I know that when I step in front of a room of kids and teachers, they are my friends. They like my books. They want me to succeed. And because of this, I know that I cannot fail.

Thanks, Dad.

And Happy 4th of July!

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