At 21, Adam Osterweil was searching for a past that later shaped his future.
Then a student at Cornell University studying classical literature, he sometimes broke from schoolwork to scout out old places to use his metal detector, a favorite hobby since childhood. He often compared old and new maps to identify areas to search that might turn up historic finds.
One day, he unearthed something that piqued his interest about a nearby centuries-old Revolutionary War battlefield.
“I happened to stumble upon Newtown Battlefield State Park, but noticed that it did not line up with the correct spot on the old map,” Mr. Osterweil, who is now a Springs School English teacher, said in a recent email recapping the experience in Elmira, not far from the Cornell campus. “That was when I learned that the actual battle largely took place on what is now private property, rather than restricted-for-metal-detecting state park grounds. I drove down there and met a lot of people who lived on part of the battlefield. They showed me relics they had found gardening, such as musket balls and buttons.”
Although he didn’t find anything metal detecting, the experience itself was a treasure of sorts, sparking an idea for a children’s book nearly two decades later.
Now 40, Mr. Osterweil has written and published five books, most of them dedicated to the children of Springs School. His latest novel is a work of historical fiction titled “Cooper and the Enchanted Metal Detector,” published by Namelos, which is headed by Stephen Roxburgh, whom Mr. Osterweil refers to as the “chief guru of children’s publishing.” Mr. Roxburgh used to be the editor of author Roald Dahl, who penned numerous classics for children.
The official release date for “Cooper and the Enchanted Metal Detector” is May 1, but copies have been available since February. Set in upstate New York, Mr. Osterweil tells the story of Cooper and his mother, who struggle to make ends meet running an antiques shop. Cooper, an imaginative young boy, rides a bicycle named Squeaky around town to hunt for antiques by buying relics at local garage sales. He dreams of finding something that will make life easier for his family.
Then one day, Cooper comes home with a metal detector and turns it on to his own backyard. “As it turns out, the mystery unravels about what happened on his property way back in colonial times,” said Mr. Osterweil.
Metal detecting has been a part of Mr. Osterweil’s life since he was a child growing up in Plainview, a hamlet in Nassau County. He inherited the hobby and his first metal detector from his father. “Cooper and the Enchanted Metal Detector” is in part dedicated to his parents.
“I remember finding my first penny under a swingset,” Mr. Osterweil said. “It’s just fun, just digging something out of the ground. And that’s where I sort of got the love of it.”
Over the years, Mr. Osterweil has uncovered ancient items. He has two glass cases full of his finds that he keeps in his classroom. They include things like Cracker Jack toys from World War II, a penny from 1798 with a large hole in the middle— they used to be called “large cents,” Mr. Osterweil said—a half penny from 1804, old bullets, and more. He’s also found lots of junk, like bottlecaps and aluminum, in between, he said.
“Honestly, it’s really just fun being out there and just making a connection to the past,” Mr. Osterweil said. “Like, when you dig something up, you’re the next person to touch it after the person who dropped it. So this penny from 1798 was sitting there, underground, and then I come along, you know, 200 years later, and I’m the next person to touch it. It’s sort of like shaking hands with somebody from the past.”
Springs School has served as a laboratory of sorts for Mr. Osterweil’s writing, and has helped him improve it, he said. The students, who know him as “Mr. O,” have been an inspiration for all the books, he said. Mr. Osterweil has enlisted the help of students in test-reading his books. In return, he gives them credit in the books. He has a notebook where he jots down interactions, descriptions and dialogues that he comes across.
Teaching at the Springs School is a “perfect place” to be for writing children’s books, he said. “I basically probably would not have characters for these books without the Springs students,” he said. “I draw from all over the place. You kind of put together bits and pieces of people and create a new character. But everything that I hear in the hallway, or talk to kids, the language that they speak, types of interest that they have, clothing that they wear, just that’s where I get it all, basically.”
Mr. Osterweil has been teaching at the Springs School for 17 years. He teaches English to mostly sixth- and seventh-graders. He works to inspire children to write, and tries to stress the importance of the revision process.
Victor Giannini, 29, a former student of Mr. Osterweil and an author, artist and teacher in Brooklyn, remembers his former teacher fondly.
“Mr. O strongly encouraged every idea and project I had,” Mr. Giannini said in an email. “If I wrote a short story, he let me read it in class. He was open to the idea of story-telling not being confined to the page, but it all starts there. If I did something odd, like write a never-ending story on a cylindrical piece of paper, he went out of his way to show interest and encourage me, without making the classroom hate me.”
His style and impact on students hasn’t gone unnoticed by Springs School leaders. Principal Eric Casale spoke highly of Mr. Osterweil’s teaching style, noting that the teacher promotes writing as a “process.” Mr. Casale said his son, Eric Casale Jr., a fifth-grader in the Hampton Bays School District, will soon be reading Mr. Osterweil’s book.
“The kids, they see themselves in his stories,” Mr. Casale said. “It makes it tangible for them.”
Superintendent Dominic Mucci recommended Mr. Osterweil for tenure years ago. Mr. Mucci said he’s proud of Mr. Osterweil, and called him a “very deep thinker, someone who looks at the big picture, and certainly someone who analyzes very, very well.”
“Adam is an up front individual who absolutely writes in an incredible way,” Mr. Mucci said. “He has his students involved in his projects, which provide him a very real life experience.”
Writing books has earned Mr. Osterweil a bit of local celebrity around the school. It has even inspired some students to ask their parents for metal detectors, he said.
“Some student today asked me to sign his math homework,” Mr. Osterweil said. “And I put my signature on his math homework. They make me feel like a star everywhere I walk in this building.”