My, how the world has changed since I was in first grade. I began school at the age of 5, the “new kid” in town, with no friends yet.
My old, old, old teacher wore a hairnet over her tightly coiled gray hair, and those laced-up black shoes with the low heels like the ones my nana wore. She hardly ever smiled, and if one did slip out, it was never directed at me.
She made two or three other disgruntled first-graders stay after school occasionally, because they were slow at reading; but I was assigned to that group every single day, with no relief in sight.
One day, she announced — turning all eyes on me — that I would probably never to learn to read. I took this declaration of finality to be my dismissal, relieved that she had finally given up on me. I was pretty sure I didn’t need to read anyway.
Unfortunately, I misunderstood; she simply meant that I now was a permanent member of the group of students who weren’t trying hard enough to learn to read.
I hated all the words on every page of that book. I hated Dick, Jane and baby Sally; Mother and Father; and even Spot and Puff, the family’s dog and cat.
A couple of months into second grade, however, much to the amazement of my parents, I was reading at grade level. The young and beautiful Miss Davis never even raised her voice at me. She gave me extra attention in reading, and I was glad to have her to myself sometimes when the other kids were at recess.
I learned to read quite confidently, hardly aware of my transformation. By third grade, I loved words, my window to another wider world. I was hungry for the printed word, and I wanted more and more of them.
On one of those long, lazy days of summer before fourth grade began, my father (always an avid reader) suggested I walk downtown and get myself a library card. A bit nervous, I asked a neighborhood friend to go with me. She always had her face in a book, even in summer when it wasn’t required to read.
When I told her my plan, she shrieked in disbelief. “Are you kidding? You don’t have a library card? I’ve had a library card for three years!” I was embarrassed and self-conscious as we walked into the cool quiet of the building, and happy to have my friend along for support. She was on familiar terms with the librarian, who welcomed another convert to reading books out of school.
After filling out the information required for a card at the Rockport Public Library, I was proud at this clearly adult connection to the world. I remember that first book I borrowed on my card; it was a green, hardcover copy of “Pal,” from the young adult section. The title is all I remember of it, but when I got home, I finished it the same day and read it again the next day.
Having a library card opened so many doors for a kid in the 1950s: doors to privacy, doors to secret companionships, doors to cost-free access to the world’s entertainment and information. Holding a book was heaven — and it still is.
I know I will never read a book on a Kindle. Whenever someone says they’re reading a book on their Kindle, the hairs on the back of my neck respond as my inner self says, “No, you’re not; you’re only reading the words of a book that somebody sucked out of the book and put on a Kindle.”
Into our 70s now, my husband and I are trying seriously to downsize. For more than 40 years, what we once thought we would always want and need and love was this 11-room old Victorian house and everything in it.
Turns out, though, that while we do still enjoy the house and our things and our many “collections,” we no longer want or need most of them. I am the pack rat in our relationship, so I’ve surprised myself at how little I miss (and sometimes even notice) the number of things my husband has packed up in boxes, labeled and stacked in one of our unused rooms.
The most difficult thing for me to let go of is my books. Since childhood, they have expanded the boundaries of my mind, offered companionship and, hopefully, wisdom. Their presence on the shelf is akin to having a “best friend” around at all times.
They range from “Saint Francis and the Wolf” to “How to Parent” to collections of my favorite authors. And I have four hardcover dictionaries that I keep in four different rooms. Whenever I have to consult one for a definition or a correct spelling, I usually end up scouring the whole page for words I don’t know.
It’s difficult for me to go from shelf to shelf, pulling down my “nonessential” books and seeing them in a pile on the floor. I usually notice one I can’t live without, and then another, and still another, until I have reinstated nearly all into their previous spaces.
I think sometimes that if it hadn’t been for “Pal” in Rockport’s library, I might not have been such a willing slave to the printed word. I have loved reading since that first book of my choosing, and I always will.
I’m glad I won’t be around when “real” books printed on “real” paper are a thing of the past, and surely, that will come to pass. I mean, how many dinosaurs do you see still prowling around?
Gloucester resident Susan S. Emerson is a regular Times columnist.