My excitement at being surrounded by social studies teachers again after going to a few dozen math and science teacher conferences was tempered by the news I received on Saturday that a former Scholastic colleague had passed away. Eric Oatman was the editor of Search magazine in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and he was the first person to pay me to write about American history. Besides hiring me as the freelance writer of the teaching guides and reproducibles that accompanied the magazines, Eric also assigned me the articles and history plays that nudged me toward my current career as an author focusing on history. I wrote articles about men who hauled freight across the Old West; an oral history project with World War II Rosie the Riveters; the influenza epidemic of 1918-1919; and the spirit of exploration in America. My classroom plays dramatized the exploits of a former slave who spied for the Americans during the Revolutionary War; the kidnapping of Daniel Boone’s daughter in 1776; and a family’s westward journey during the Gold Rush.
Writing for Search allowed me to indulge my endless curiosity about the people who were left out of the American history textbooks I read when I was growing up. It also gave me the chance to earn a little extra money as I established my independence. (I still have the reclining chair, lovingly called my “Search chair,” that I bought with my first $300 check.) Eric was a wise and enthusiastic editor, offering a guiding hand but letting me go where the stories took me. I also appreciated that he was not without a sense of irony. In 1983, when Search and Senior Scholastic were folded into a new publication, Scholastic Update, Eric assigned me to write the magazine’s last play. It followed Amelia Earhart’s preparations before she set out on the 1937 flight from which she never returned.
Fortunately, Search did return when Scholastic resurrected it a few years later for another run under three different editors. By then, Eric had moved on to start the company’s sponsored publishing program, setting the standards that guided it in its early years. (He later became a news and features editor for School Library Journal.) And I had become entrenched in math, thrilled to be part of a dynamic editorial team dedicated to making number sense and problem solving relevant to young lives. But the seed had been sown. I longingly read the new Search, occasionally contributed short articles to it, and wondered if writing history was what I was meant to do. I guess it was, because I eventually found my way back. So thanks, Eric, for starting me on my journey.
Note: The Search cover above is from 1980, but it asks a question we could very well ask today.