There was a black stretch limousine parked in front of John Burroughs Middle School last week, and even for a gifted magnet school in Hancock Park, that's a sign that something unusual might be taking place. And it was. Inside, author Jean Auel was speaking to a group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, all of whom had studied her first novel, "The Clan of the Cave Bear" as part of an ancient history/literature class taught by Phoebe Faulkner.
Faulkner is one of those teachers parents can't say enough about. In fact, it was a parent who arranged the talk. L.A. Weekly arts editor Tom Christie's son had taken Faulkner's class last year. So when Auel's new book, "The Shelters of Stone," crossed his desk, he thought it might be nice for Faulkner, who is planning to retire in June, to meet Auel. She had, after all, been teaching Auel's first book for almost six years. And it is not a small book. It might be interesting for her to introduce her kids to the woman who wrote the words they had pored over for months.
"I needed a source to make pre-history real for the kids," Faulkner said. "When I found this book, it just grabbed me," she said of Auel's first title in the Earth's Children series, which revolves around Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal characters. "I believe literature is the best way to teach humanity, to teach what it is we owe each other. And this book so beautifully illustrates how race and other differences are negligible. I wanted kids to see that our true connection is that of spirit."
And so Auel found herself engaged in one of the more unusual book tour stops of her career. The talk was held in the school's library, which, with its dim, warm smell of well-read books and enforced hush, is also instantly familiar to any lifelong reader. Auel stood at a makeshift podium that was really an atlas stand made, like all of the low furniture in the room, of the stained-golden pine with a cracked finish so tantalizing to bored students.
Standing beside Auel, her arm often loosely embracing her, Faulkner got things off to a great start. She talked a bit about the importance of the series. One by one, some of the students came up and read their favorite bits and everyone applauded.
When asked how many had read beyond the first book, most of the students raised their hands. So Faulkner asked them to tell "Mrs. Auel" some aspect of the books that had stayed with them. Instantly, the two adults were facing the collective strained and noisy silence of 106 suddenly shy boys and girls. The girls dropped their eyes and rolled their shoulders and the boys shifted in their seats, their feet in impossibly huge sneakers thumping against the floor as they crossed and recrossed them.
For several moments, it looked as though this was going to be a very tough room.
And then it became clear why Faulkner is one of those teachers students will talk about when they have children of their own. With the diction and vocabulary of a modern Mr. Chips and the coaxing empathy of Oprah, Faulkner talked her kids down from the ledge of self-consciousness and soon it became clear that Auel, left to her own devices, was not going to be able to get a word in edgewise. The author, herself not a shy or retiring woman, deferred now to the teacher who reined in the kids as easily as she had gotten them to gallop.
Auel, 66, read a bit from "The Shelters of Stone," the long-awaited fifth book in the series, and then students asked a series of questions that form the skeleton of almost every author profile--what are you working on now? (the next book in the series), how much do you draw on real life for your characters? (bits and pieces at best), when did you know you wanted to be a writer? (not until she was 45), and the ever popular, will there be a movie? Her amusing, but a bit bitter, answer--"There was a movie and I didn't like it at all and so I got mad and sued my publisher"--was perhaps the best received information of the day.
The sudden metallic blurt of the school bell startled Auel, who looked immediately, and a bit fearfully, to Faulkner, proving that even years on the bestseller list don't undo the training of childhood. Faulkner nodded encouragingly to continue, but after a few more questions, she rose, a signal that things were winding down.
Two boys in shorts that dipped below their knees and more of those tremendous sneakers presented Auel with a huge card signed by all the students, and Auel, in turn, presented the school with several copies of her books and promised to autograph any copies the students had.
Faulkner told several of the students to get on to class, she'd be along in a minute. When they told her the door was locked, she sighed and drew from somewhere on her person an emperor's necklace of keys. It glittered and clanked as she sought the correct one. Seeing the open admiration of its heft, she laughed. "I've been doing this for 40 years," she said. "That's an awful lot of doors to open."
As for Auel, ensconced behind a pile of her books, pen in hand, she finally looked like an author on a book tour. She looked over at Faulkner and smiled and shook her head.
"All I can say is, I certainly wish I had had a teacher like her when I was a kid."