By Jennie Zeitler, Correspondent
Royalton fifth-grade teacher Rusty Gwost has always loved to write. Toward the end of his college years nearly two decades ago, he took a proficiency test that showed his aptitude for writing.
“But I never thought I was good enough to do it; I never took the time to do it,” Gwost said.
Writing was put on a back burner while he pursued his love of baseball. Following his graduation from high school in Little Falls, he earned a baseball scholarship to Mankato State University (now Minnesota State University-Mankato), where he got involved in coaching as well as playing.
After college, he started as a pitching coach with a university in Davenport, Iowa and slid into an open teaching position at the same time. He started teaching at Royalton the following year and is still enthusiastically teaching fifth grade, 17 years later.
For 15 of those years, he was Royalton’s baseball coach. After resigning, he saw it as a good opportunity to take some of his newfound time for something different.
“My sons and my students saw me as a teacher, a coach, a hunter and fisherman,” he said. “I started writing as an example to motivate them. I wanted them to not be afraid to try something new.”
Gwost wrote “Be Proud of Your Paws” as a way of helping kids to be proud of themselves by making good decisions every day.
“As a parent and as a teacher, it’s the most important thing ever for them to be proud of who they are,” said Gwost.
The book uses young “Royal Lion” to show newcomers how fun and exciting it is to be at school and about making good decisions in each new situation. Each turn of the page shows Royal Lion in different areas of the school, such as meeting new friends, being in the classroom, on the playground, in the gym, using computers and in the lunchroom.
“As the book goes along, it begins conversations with older kids about the tracks they leave, their legacy,” he said. “It’s tough to get kids to think about that – about the future, their example.”
Gwost wants kids to understand that some of their decisions are permanent and could be harmful. The book is designed to help students be “proud of their paws” and the tracks those paws leave wherever they go.
“There are tracks that can be erased and some that are permanent,” he said. “It’s really important to get them to think about the responsibility of having technology, for example.”
Royalton is in the middle of a five-year plan to put an iPad in the hands of every student in grades K-12.
“Last year was the first year that the fifth graders each had an iPad and I thought it went really well,” he said. “But teaching internet safety is ongoing; we’re always teaching, always modeling.”
The journey to a finished book took some time, once it was written.
“In the two years since I wrote this, there was editing and then the illustration process,” said Gwost. “Everything took so long. It was a long wait for the Library of Congress. Staying with the project from start to finish was a challenge, but a good lesson for me.”
The book’s illustrator is Erin Chisholm, a former speech language pathologist at Royalton Elementary who now works in Sartell.
The book was set up by Lakes Printing in Brainerd, but was printed by Bang Printing. It is a hardcover book with a spine.
“We wanted it sturdier, to be handled by a lot of little paws,” Gwost said.
Gwost and his wife, Lyn, and their three sons — Alex, Zach and Carter — were together to pick up the books.
“It was so exciting,” he said. “After all the highs and lows, I could see ‘this is why I’m doing this.’ There is nothing like having my 7-year-old sit on my lap and read the book to me for the first time.”
The first printing included 1,000 books. For schools and other large groups, the retail price will be discounted. Gwost is currently working on an eBook edition.
A book-signing event will be held at the Royalton Library Thursday, Sept. 18, with one to follow in Little Falls and another signing at Great River Arts in October.
“I’m on an adventure where I don’t know exactly where I’m headed,” he said. “But I can’t ask my boys and my students to take risks unless I model that.”
The book’s website is under construction. For more information, contact Gwost at BeProudOfYourPaws@outlook.com or (320) 232-8185.