SOUTH PORTLAND —When students and faculty at Holy Cross Catholic School in South Portland were told the coronavirus was forcing the school to close and they would have to engage in distance learning, it’s a safe bet no one thought the distance would approach 3,000 miles.

But a little detective work on the part of teacher Bill Ridge regarding a novel he wanted his students to read led to contact with the book’s author, who now lives in Scotland, and helped bring the novel’s lessons home in a way Ridge never could have expected.

“I just think it’s remarkable,” he said.

Author Chris Lynch, shown at his home in Scotland, has been working long distance with Holy Cross students after he learned that due to school closures, the kids couldn’t access his book, “The Right Fight,” for history lessons. Courtesy / Chris Lynch

Ridge, who teaches social studies for grades 5-8, said he routinely asks students to read novels set in periods the kids are studying. Earlier in the school year, when planning for a unit on World War II, Ridge was going to assign his students “The Right Fight, a novel about a young man dreaming of becoming a major league ballplayer, but instead was sent to the front as a tank driver.

Then the coronavirus came. Like schools across the nation, Holy Cross closed and Ridge and his students had to take their lessons online. The problem, Ridge said, was the copies of the novel got left behind at the school.

“I had no way of getting them to the students,” he said.

Going online didn’t help, either. If it were a longtime classic, Ridge said, finding a free electronic version would be easy, as so many classic novels are now in the public domain, but “The Right Fight” was only published about eight years ago.

“Nowhere online could I find a pdf, epub or any kind of electronic version,” he said.

As a last-ditch effort, Ridge began Googling the author, Chris Lynch, for help. Ridge found that he lives in Scotland, but also serves as a creative writing instructor for the Master of Fine Arts program at Lesley University in Boston. So Ridge wrote to Lynch’s college email address, only half-expecting a response.

Within a day, Ridge said, Lynch wrote back, saying he was eager to help. So much so, in fact, he not only sent Ridge an electronic version of the book to pass on to his kids, but it was a final draft production version, which included many of the author’s and editor’s notes. Ridge called it “a gold mine for teaching writing or anything.”

Lynch’s help didn’t stop there. He volunteered to interact directly with the students. Real-time video chat wasn’t possible due to the time difference, but Lynch agreed to an ongoing dialogue via email. Ridge said it starts with the kids sending Lynch questions after reading chapters. Ridge said Lynch has offered “a lengthy reply” to each, and has himself prompted the kids for their thoughts with his own questions.

Lynch told The Forecaster via email that he lives about 35 miles south of Glasgow now, but is originally from Boston, and even spent some time working as a proofreader in Portland.

Cover of Chris Lynch’s novel, The Right Fight, about a young man sent to the front as a tank driver during World War II. Credit: Roman Catholic Diocese of South Portland

“I was pretty thrilled when Bill reached out,” Lynch said. “I was really happy to have this interaction with the students. I went to Catholic schools as a kid, so I guess that added an extra level of intrigue for me.”

So far, the lessons have been a big hit with the kids.

“I think it is very cool that we are able to talk to the author of the book, for any question about the book and maybe even about writing the book,” Shea Smith, 13, said via email. “Talking to the author gives us pieces of the book that maybe no other person reading the book would know about.”

“He probably gets hundreds of emails a day and he decided to go through ours and respond to our email,” fellow student Rachel Feeley, 13, said. “I think it’s cool that we have an author that wrote a really good book and we can ask questions to.”

Lynch said the experience has been just as much fun for him as it has been for the kids.

“It has forced me to go back to the book myself, looking for answers, like, ‘Huh, why did I decide to write this or that bit in quite that way?'” he said. “I’ve never had quite this same experience with other books. I’ll get a few student questions here and there, but not usually in this real-time interactive way.”

Sean Murphy (207)780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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