Writer teaches self-respect makes life bearable

BERNE — Respect yourself.  Treat others with respect.  And make The Rest of Your Life the most fantastic story you have ever told. 

This is what Ben Mikaelsen, best-selling author of books for young adults, told Berne-Knox-Westerlo middle-school students earlier this month. 

“I love looking at an audience like you because what I see is diversity.  I see differences,” Mikaelsen said to the students.  “Look at you — your clothes, your hairstyles, your skin color.  You are all so wonderfully, wonderfully different.” 

Best known for his novel Touching Spirit Bear, Mikaelsen has written nine novels for young adults.  He called the award-winning book “my emotional autobiography.” 

His protagonist is Cole Matthews, an angry, hateful ninth-grader from Minneapolis who beats up a classmate and faces jail time.  But a Tlingit Indian parole officer offers an alternative and Matthews is banished to an Alaskan island.  There, after he is mauled by a white bear, he is transformed from a young man full of hate, anger, and blame into a person who takes responsibility for his life. 

Mikaelsen wrote a sequel to the novel — Ghost of Spirit Bear.

Hero of his own story

It takes Mikaelsen about a year and a half to write a book and, once he’s finished one, he reads it cover to cover non-stop.  His own life story reads like a tall tale. 

He flies airplanes.  He’s been on an expedition to the North Pole.  He’s gone swimming with dolphins and plunged from cliffs.  He’s won the Minnesota state skydiving championship, and he lives in Montana, where he walks in the wilderness with Buffy, a 750-pound eastern black bear he has raised for 25 years. 

It’s not unusual for him to get 100 letters a day from fans.  He spends hours editing his stories in Buffy’s pen and theatrically reads whatever he’s rewritten aloud to the bear.

“I don’t know anybody who has as much fun as me,” Mikaelsen said. 

It’s a long way from where he started. 

Born in Bolivia, South America, where Spanish was the primary language, Mikaelsen was raised in the mountains and wasn’t schooled until fourth grade. 

He was branded as “the dumb kid,” he said, and struggled in school.  He scored at the fifth-grade level in English on his college entrance exams.  In college, his first essay was covered with so many red marks, Mikaelsen said, that “it looked like a pizza.” 

His professor, however, thought he was a wonderful writer and told him his story was the only one that made him laugh and cry.  But the professor saw that Mikaelsen had difficulty with the English language and instructed him to be tutored for an hour each day.  Otherwise, his professor said, he was going to be one of the most frustrated human beings alive.

“My very first day of education in my entire life I was 9 years old,” Mikaelsen said.  “I couldn’t read or write.  I could barely speak English.  Things got ugly.”

What was uglier was the torment his classmates inflicted on him, in both Bolivia and in the United States.  In Bolivia, everyone was short, wore the same clothes, and had the same color of skin and hair, he said.  But he was different because he was white.  His schoolmates called him “dumb gringo.”  To fit in, he once covered his body with dark shoe polish. 

“Because of all the teasing, I started thinking something was wrong with me,” Mikaelsen said. 

But, at boarding school, he discovered something: letters made words, words made sentences, and sentences made stories.  “And I had about a zillion stories in my head,” he said.   

At night, he hid under his covers with a flashlight, a pen, and paper after everyone else in his dorm room went to sleep. 

“I was the dumbest kid in school, I swear, but I always had ideas,” Mikaelsen said.

But, he said, he still couldn’t stop the teasing.  And, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t change the color of his skin. 

Looking back

Today, when Mikaelsen thinks of bullies, it still makes him angry. 

Bullies may be big, tough, even popular, he said, but, inside, where it counts, they feel tiny, inadequate, and insecure.  They are always sarcastic, Mikaelsen said, and they are in every school across America.  He said he has never met a successful bully. 

“You’re not invisible,” he told the middle-schoolers.  “You are not anonymous.”

Mikaelsen said Buffy saved his life because he saved him from himself. 

“The problem was that I didn’t know what to do with my anger,” he said.  “I became a bully.  It happened very slowly,” he said.  “I started hitting other students.  I thought I was so cool and so tough.” 

He was not a very good person, he said, and he couldn’t be trusted. 

Buffy, he said, taught him who the “scaredest” students are and who the biggest and strongest students are.

Author on honor

Mikaelsen challenged the students to make a difference — in their school, in their own lives, and on the planet.  Each, he said, is the author of a story.  The name of the story?  The Rest of Your Life.

“Students, what I’m here today to tell you is that you are a whole, whole lot more than even you can imagine,” said Mikaelsen.  “But what are you?” he asked. “And that’s what life is about…discovering that.”  But, he said, there’s one thing that gets in the way — pride. 

Every morning, he said, he has “quiet time” — five minutes when he tells himself, “Today is my day.”

“My life, your lives,” Mikaelsen said. “They are the most important stories that we will ever, ever tell.  And, so, students, every morning I remind myself that, ‘All right then, if my life is a story, and if, in fact, I am the author of that story, well then, I guess what it means is that today is a brand new chapter, and it means that I am the author of that chapter.’”

Before taking questions from students, Mikaelsen ended his presentation with some words on honor. 

“It’s an honor as an author to come to a school where I see students like you having read my books.  That’s a real honor,” he said.  “But I will tell you this: If you take the stories that you’re reading in my books and you take the lessons that those stories have to tell you and you make your stories bigger and better because of it, what you have done is you have honored yourself.  And that is the greatest way you can honor anything on this planet is to honor yourself.”

More Hilltowns News

  • Before the Berne Town Board appointed resident Donna Ferraino as the town’s dog-control officer, Councilman Leo Vane, in addition to calling the non-partisan office a “political position,” indicated that former DCO Jodi Jansen had resigned over “political issues,” which contradicts what Supervisor Sean Lyons told The Enterprise about Jansen’s resignation earlier this year.

  • The Berne Town Hall.

    Berne Planning Board member Lawrence Zimmerman resigned in November over frustrations that the town is not following the guidance of its own comprehensive plan. Former town board member Dawn Jordan says that ideology and partisanship got in the way, along with some more prosaic — and even healthy — obstacles.

  • Municipalities have until Dec. 31 to request that the New York State Cannabis Control Board prohibit marijuana dispensaries and consumption sites from establishing themselves within each municipality’s respective borders. So far, only two of the four Hilltowns have initiated public conversation on the matter.

The Altamont Enterprise is focused on hyper-local, high-quality journalism. We produce free election guides, curate readers' opinion pieces, and engage with important local issues. Subscriptions open full access to our work and make it possible.