At school visits, typically the only thing I will sign is copies of my books—not scraps of paper, autograph books, backpacks, T-shirts, wrappers, or arms.
It’s not that I mind signing; in fact, I am honored every time someone asks and impressed with any student who has the courage to approach an author after a presentation. I don’t think I would have been that kid.
I do worry that some students want an autograph simply because they perceive every author as famous without taking to heart the reason authors come to schools in the first place—to reinforce the importance (and fun) of reading and writing. But this is also not why I have not been signing miscellany.
No, the reason I adopted this sign-only-books policy is equality. It is rarely feasible for an author to sign for every student who heard him. So if I scribble my name on only some students’ slips of paper, it’s unfair to those who didn’t get a signature.
But if a student is vested enough to buy one of an author's books, he has “earned” a signature (even though the real value is, of course, the book itself). This idea has been in place since before I entered the scene.
Still, I thought many other authors of books for young people were not as regimented about signatures as I have been…until my first of four days at International School Nido de Aguilas in Santiago, Chile.
At lunch after I spoke, two students came up to me and politely asked for an autograph. I thanked them, explained the above, and then spontaneously offered the consolation of me posing for a photo with them if they wanted. They seemed fine with that and left, planning to bring a camera the next day.
I turned to my host (the school librarian) and apologized if my policy came off as insensitive. I hoped I hadn't just undermined my purpose in being there. She assured me not to worry—what I did is apparently the same as what all the previous authors who’d visited the school had done.
I was surprised. And also relieved.
Then I was surprised again because I realized that my autograph policy actually goes against one of my core beliefs about education. I believe in fairness, of course—and part of that is teaching kids that life is not always fair.
I am disappointed when I find that a school does not allow competition; this does not prepare kids for real life! It’s okay to lose or miss out sometimes, and adults have a responsibility to impart this to young people.
(I also realized that for me to decline to sign but then offer to pose is illogical. Whether signature or photo, students who did not get one could feel slighted.)
If I don't sign for anyone, I am reinforcing the notion that not everyone gets everything he wants every time. Yet if I sign for some but don't get to sign for all, I am sending the same message. In other words, authors show that life isn't always fair whether or not we sign scraps.
So perhaps I should sign more autographs, time permitting (but still not on backpacks, T-shirts, or arms). In other scenarios we say "better some than none"...why not in this case?