MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — Martinsburg High students weren’t shy about taking advantage of an opportunity to meet – and benefit from the experiences of – southern West Virginia native Homer Hickam, a former NASA engineer who is perhaps best known for his book, “Rocket Boys.”
Hickam, who was selected as this year’s Shepherd University Appalachian Writer-in-Residence, visited Martinsburg on Wednesday morning as part of the university’s 19th Annual Appalachian Heritage Festival, which runs through Sept. 27.
Following his visit with students, Hickam spoke at the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library.
But leaving the school wasn’t easy, simply because so many students lined up after the presentation to get his autograph – many brought books, others simply had a slip of paper for him to sign.
During his remarks, Hickam appeared pleasantly surprised by the number of students who raised their hands after he asked if anyone was interested in becoming a writer.
Hickam didn’t hide his secret for success, but instead took audience members back to his childhood growing up in the mining town of Coalwood – when he first began to write and also began publishing his own newspaper after his third-grade teacher predicted he’d one day make a living from writing.
“I just didn’t see any need to wait,” said Hickam, who has since written 18 books and just last week sent his latest manuscript off to the publisher.
Looking back, Hickam said one of the most valuable lessons he’d learned had been about human nature.
“People want to read about other people,” he said with a smile.
A rocket club he formed with friends, the Big Creek Missile Agency, was an important part of his life – both then and now -because those adventures were the foundation for “Rocket Boys,” which has been popular internationally and was recently translated into Vietnamese, Hickam said.
In addition to answering nearly two dozen questions, Hickam advised aspiring authors to read and write a lot.
Martinsburg High English department chair Rhonda Foreman, who helped bring Hickam as well as other writers-in-residence to the school, said this is a unique opportunity.
“It is really wonderful for our students to be able to put a face with the books they are reading, as well as being able to ask that person about how they write – what’s actually involved in the writing process,” Foreman said.
“That’s when these young people begin to realize that writing is something they can do,” she said, adding that audience members were from both Martinsburg and Hedgesville high schools.
That’s what happened for freshman Jessica Beitz, who recently started reading “Rocket Boys” and was happy to get to talk with Hickam in person, she said.
“I love storytelling and that’s part of being a good writer,” Beitz said, adding that she’d already started writing a series of books focusing on her friends who also have super powers.
English teacher Robert Burkhart, who’d assigned the book, said students were also writing in journals as part of their classwork.
Burkhart, who is writing along with his students, said he plans to keep their work over their four years in high school.
“I really want to show them how much their writing has improved, and also so they will have those funny, cool little stories that will be fun to look back on later in life,” he said.
Junior Jack Renwick said he was a little disappointed when Hickam didn’t want to answer his questions about how he got his job at NASA and whether he would like to go into space now.
But it wasn’t a dealbreaker for Renwick, who said he admires Hickam and has some similar goals for himself.
“I’m thinking I will become an engineer, and I am incredibly interested in space. I want to go into space once before I die, even if I have to take out a massive loan and leave that debt to my kids to pick up the tab,” Renwick said after the presentation.
Thinking back to middle school, junior Nick Graves said that’s when he first got interested in writing. Now, he’s planning to take some of Hickam’s advice about improving his writing skills, Graves said.
“It’s like he said, I do think it is important to read a lot to become a good writer. And even though I read some, I do think I could do more,” he said.