It was fourth grade and I’d finally made it to one of ‘those’ teachers classes. Every school has one or two. The teacher everyone can’t wait to get. They’re almost folk legends two grades above you until all of a sudden, you’re sitting on the third row, the wooden fold-top desk under your hands, and in comes the teacher like a rock star entering an arena. The feelings lasts a while. Usually until you get your first graded paper back.
He lived up to his lore as much as any mortal person can. We built and launched model rockets, as he had his class do every year. We learned more about science and he made it interesting. He’d stand in front of the class, well over six feet tall, and we’d all listen. And we’d laugh. And we’d have fun. It wasn’t like any class before.
One day during free time I was reading a book I’d brought in from home. It was one of those weekly reader purchases called DISASTERS!. I think it actually had the exclamation point in the title, it was that ridiculous. Chapter by chapter it spelled out details of various tragic events, from volcanoes to plane crashes, earthquakes to tornadoes. And I loved every minute of it. I was reading it one day and the teacher saw it and asked me about it. He looked it over then did something you never expect from a teacher, he asked if he could borrow it.
A teacher, borrow a book, from a student? From me? That was a crazy thought.
I gladly said yes, earning some of those mystical extra points I thought. I watched him sit at his desk and go through the book, page by page, absorbing all the stories I had read. He took time several days a week to read some of the stories to the class. From MY book. Then the week ended and another began then that week ended. He still had my book. I wasn’t worried, I mean, it was my teacher. I would see it come out of his briefcase and he’d go through it again then it would disappear for another day, a week, or more.
Finally, after I was in DISASTER! withdrawals, I asked him. “Can I have my book?” I was probably as quiet as a mouse. You don’t want to be the one to make the teacher mad, especially a legend. But he told me I could of course have it back, and he brought it in the next day. He called me up and handed it to me and I turned and went back to my desk and sat down. It was a bit more worn than it had been when I loaned it out. As I began to flip the pages my heart sunk and my gut tightened up. Page corners were folded and unfolded and, oh my god, is that pen? Words, sentences and paragraphs were underlined, circled, starred and any other conceivable marking a person could make with an unerasable writing tool.
I lived in a house where books were sacred. Dust jackets stayed perfect on hard bound books. Covers of paperbacks were kept flat. And pages were never, and I mean never, folded over. To even think of writing in a book that wasn’t designed for coloring in was inconceivable. And actually, we never even had coloring books.
And I’m still that way. I have books from my childhood on the shelves behind me. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Outsiders, Bridge to Terabithia and on. The pages are pristine, the covers unmangled.
I never complained to my teacher. Everyone treats their books differently. Some see them as tools, others see them as valuable collectibles even if the monetary value will never increase. But here I am, so many years later, and I still remember that feeling of opening that ridiculous book and seeing pen markings all through it.