Sharon Draper once recognized a former student in a London Airport by his T-shirt: "I Survived the Draper Paper." Only a graduate of Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, would know of Draper's infamous end-of-the-year research paper, and only a student who had successfully completed it would have been rewarded with the shirt. Though Draper has retired from teaching, "The Draper Paper" is still well known, and she used to brag "Juniors start to tremble just hearing about it."
Born in Cleveland, "many moons ago," Draper lived in a close-knit neighborhood with her parents and two young siblings. Both her parents encouraged education -- they read to their children every night, quizzed them on their spelling and math, and made it clear that attending college was not a choice, it was a rule. As a girl, Draper's favorite pastime was playing school. "I was probably born to be a teacher," she says. "I taught my dolls, my dog, and the kids next door."
Her grade school teachers kept Draper's enthusiasm alive, and she still remembers their influence. She specifically remembers a fifth grade teacher who, against common opinion, gave her students Langston Hughes and Shakespeare to read. Says Draper: "We didn't know we weren't supposed to be able to do that in the fifth grade. She gave it to us and we loved it. It was part of making me the teacher I am today."
Draper attended Pepperdine University as a National Merit Scholar and majored in English. When she graduated, the school offered her a teaching position and the chance to pursue her graduate studies (she was twenty years old). She declined, and moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. There, she married Larry Draper and started teaching in the city's public schools.
Though her first teaching experience wasn't all she dreamed it to be ("…I broke down and cried in front of the class…"), Draper is still passionate about her profession. "So much attention," she says, "is given to the negative aspects of education -- the violence, the failure, the weaknesses -- that we fail to notice the positives -- the success stories, the achievements, the joys."
Draper's own success story began in 1991, when a student walked into her classroom with a crumpled application form from Ebony Magazine. He handed her the paper and said, "You think you so bad -- why don't you write something! Enter this contest!" She accepted his challenge, wrote "One Small Torch" for the magazine's Short Story Contest, and won $5000.
The prize gave Draper an idea-she had already been working on a young adult novel, why not finish and try to get it published? She sent out Tears of a Tiger to twenty-five publishing companies, and received twenty-four rejection slips. In that final letter, publisher Simon Pulse accepted her manuscript, and for the next year and a half, Draper (under the watchful eye of her students) went through every step of the publishing process.
Tears of a Tiger came out in 1994 to instant success. It was named an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and won the American Library Association/Coretta Scott King Genesis Award. While waiting for her first book, Draper started a picture book, Ziggy and the Black Dinosaurs, another award winner that eventually became a series. She continued the story of the Hazelwood High School students with her next two books, Forged by Fire and Darkness Before Dawn. Both these titles have won national awards, and remain top-sellers. Though her books often deal with serious subjects, Draper refuses to gloss over the tragedy: "Abuse and death are topics that need to be discussed by young people…. I talk about these things because, unfortunately, those are the realities of life for many teenagers today."
In 1995, Draper became one of the first 150 teachers to receive National Board Certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. She was the 1997 National Teacher of the Year, having already been chosen as Ohio's Outstanding Language Arts Educator and Ohio Teacher of the Year. She is a YWCA Career Woman of Achievement and holds the Pepperdine University Distinguished Alumnus Award. She spends her time traveling to conventions and schools all around the country, teaching every student she meets. Of course, she hasn't given up writing, nor has she traded her teenage subjects for adult ones. In her mind, she has inspiration all around her. "There are thousands of teenagers in schools today. Each one of them has a story."
Photos courtesy of Simon & Schuster and Sharon Draper.