I grew up homeschooled, erratic books and lesson plans, some years all straight-up, hard-core smart kid math books, other years we just read Laura Ingalls Wilder and tried to make acorn pancakes ourselves (not so tasty, as it turns out). This was before the phrase “unschooling” was on anyone’s lips and most people thought us a strange and wild bunch. After a mighty struggle to read (various testings for dslexia, the words all knotting up my mind and in my mouth) suddenly the dams burst forth. I was a reader from that day forward.
I chose to be homeschooled much longer than my sisters, for various reasons (a main one was that I could get all my work done in an hour or two and be free to read or teach myself the electric bass or start a dog-walking company whenever it pleased me). When I was about to start my junior year of high school my family up and moved to a small town in central Oregon. The public school there was small, focused on the arts, and with a breathtaking view of the Three Sisters mountains. I decided I could get by there just fine and enrolled.
My English teacher was a large, somewhat stern woman who I now recognize as having a very wry sense of humor. The grown-up children in her class both bemused and bored her (it was a small town school injected with some very rich and very privileged kids). I don’t remember what she taught; I know we had to write research papers and all that but it was all a bit of a blur. Whatever she assigned for us to do in class I would do as quickly as possible. And with a nod to my unschooling ways I would stand up and go to the shelves that lined the classroom, pick up a book, sit on the floor, and start to read.
I did this, class after class (The House on Mango Street and The Bean Trees were two of my favorites). My teacher once came over to my and smiled down. You know, she said, you can take one of those books home to read if you would like. I just looked up at her and smiled, shaking my head. I was good, on the floor, in a corner, lost in my own world. It had always been my favorite place to be.
One day I picked up the book Night by Elie Wiesel. In the middle of class, reading the first few chapters, I soon realized this was a story about the Holocaust as I had never read it. Here was lament, here were the prayers for the dead being screamed out in anguish. Here was a baby being thrown up in the air and being caught on a bayonet, right in front of her mother. Here was doubt, doubt in a good God, personified. Here was the terrible world, laid bare before my 15-year-old self.
I laid the book on the floor. Deep, shaking sobs started and they just couldn’t stop. The classroom, busily working on writing out sources, stopped; the teacher stared, then turned concerned. I got up and ran to the bathroom, unable to smooth over the deep well of feelings that had been unearthed.
I never did recover, from that, my first shock of the horrible, brutal ways in which humans treat each other. It was a veil being lifted. It was the thin veneer of respectability, of denial, of distancing being scraped away. I was still a child, but I knew: it had happened, it was still happening, and I don’t want it to ever happen again.
I went back to the classroom, water splashed on my face. I sat back down on the floor, not knowing if people were still staring. I picked up the book and continued to read, both compelled and fearful of what would be asked of me in response. But as Wiesel documented his doubt, mine never grew. Another world is possible shivered underneath my idealistic self. But even then, I knew: it will never come if we don’t face up to how very far away that beautiful kingdom still is.
Night is one of many books that changed my life. There are so many stories of words changing me, of causing my heart to be just slightly less rock-hard and impenetrable. I’d like to take the next few weeks and invite some of my writer friends to write just a little bit about the books that were a part of shaping, softening, and changing them.
In the fall, likely around the end of September, I will do a round-up type of thing where I will be asking all of y’all to contribute. So be thinking, even now: what are the books that changed you?
As we move on in the world, trying every day not to be hardened to the way things are–books have been a vital part of helping me see in a new way. And I suspect it has been the same for you.