Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A Tale of...Change

When I was in the sixth grade, my teacher read to us everyday after lunch. She'd read a chapter or so--or if it was a long chapter, just a scene--and usually read the-Where the Redfern Grows-and-Old Yeller-age-appropriate stuff...until late winter, when she began a grown-up book, Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities.

We 11 and 12 year olds were bored at first and moaned and groaned about it among ourselves...for a very brief time. Then we became engrossed. When she reached the third part of the book, (Book the Third, Dickens called it) it was a beautiful day in the early spring. I remember looking at the sunny expanse of playground outside as she read and feeling a surreal sense of displacement that it could be so wonderfully warm and bright and yet I felt like I was in a city's dingy shops and visiting dark and dank prisons and creeping through alleyways and places that made me feel cold and shivery for the characters I cared about so much.

She read the normal chapter and we all begged for more. Since we begged most days, through most books--hey, the longer she read, the less work we had to do--I'm not sure what was different about our begging on this day. But she continued. Every time she started to put the book away, we pleaded with her not to quit. When it was time for afternoon recess, she put the book down and we offered to give up recess if she would just keep reading. (We took a bathroom break and hurried back to class for more.)

When it was almost time for the closing bell, we were into the part where Sydney Carton was about to enter the jail to visit Charles Darnay and only a few chapters from the end. Mrs. Hinshaw, definitely one of the teachers who most influenced my life, quit long enough to go to the office and have them call our parents to tell them we would be late. She promised to make arrangements to get those who rode the bus home. Then, as the time for school to be out came and went, as the buses rolled for home, she continued reading. By the time she reached the part where Sydney Carton gave up his life so the woman he loved could have the man she loved, I--and most of the girls--were sobbing uncontrollably. (I don't remember what the boys were doing, which is amazing in itself and should tell you exactly how dramatic the experience was for me since I was boy crazy at the time and always paid attention to what they were doing.)

Mrs. Hinshaw was hoarse by the time she closed the book. And we were all stunned into silence by the experience.

And my life was changed.

I'd always been a reader but from then on, I was an avid one. I couldn't imagine not having a book around and each time I opened one, I hoped and expected and craved some kind of emotional or exciting or renewing or exhilerating and wondrous trip. Though it was a long time later that I realized I wanted to be a writer, I know Mrs. Hinshaw's reading of A Tale Of Two Cities planted the seed. That book and the whole experience made me realize the power of stories and words.

I've read lots of books since then that have affected me and my life in varying ways. (Don't worry, I'm not going to tell you about them all.) But I would like to know, what books have had an impact on you? What books have made you different in some way? What books have you read that have somehow changed your life?

5 comments:

Gloria Harchar said...

I'm like you, Alfie, in that I always read -- books that were way advanced for my age. And of course I would always find the books my mother hid from me, thinking that the content was too mature! :) I would have to say that Mrs. Garrett made the first big impression on me. This was in middle school also. She read Great Expectations to us. I loved to hear her read because of her Bostonian accent (this was in Oklahoma). The way she said "Pip" so crisp and a little sassy, even snobbish if you know what I mean, was great fun and enthralled me for the whole story. Later we read a Separate Peace by John Knowles and that theme was what I used in KISSED BY MAGIC, my first Quelgheny Romance.

Kerrelyn Sparks said...

What a beautiful story, Alfie! It brought tears to my eyes. Tale of Two Cities was always one of my favorites--I think because it celebrates the power and beauty of love, which is something romance writers celebrate with every book. It's love that makes us the best we can be, whether it's the best spouse, or best friend, or best mother, or the best writer that we can be. (or in the case of your story, the best teacher she could be. She passed her love of reading on to you all--what a precious gift!) Thank you for sharing it with us!

Kerrelyn

Colleen Thompson said...

I remember as a fifth grader how a teacher opened those same doors by reading aloud (though no all-day marathons like you described!) That was the year I fell in love with novels, I remember, after hearing My Side of the Mountain and The Incredible Journey.

During the years I taught, I always made time to read to my students -- and even years later, when I run into one of them -- they invariably remember.

Thanks for sharing this moving story! It brought back some wonderful memories.

Nancy Herkness said...

I'm with you, Kerrelyn. I was wiping away tears. What a moving story! And what a fantastic teacher Mrs. Hinshaw was!

According to my father, the book that got me reading was "Otto of the Silver Hand". I have to admit that I don't remember much about it except being horrified when the hero of the story, a young boy, had his hand cut off by an evil robber baron (hence the silver replacement). Dad started reading it to my sister and me as a bedtime story one night (interesting choice, right? He also read us "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner".) He said that when he came in the next morning to wake us up, I was out of bed, curled up in a chair by the window, reading "Otto" all by myself. Evidently, I didn't move from the chair until I had finished the book. Luckily, it was summer vacation.

I still have that copy of "Otto" and yes, I read it to my children.

Terry Z McDermid said...

I couldn't begin to list the books that have affected me -- as a teacher of small children, I'm constantly amazed at how writers can use a few well-chosen words to share their ideals. The biggest impact in my own life would have to be the paperback classics I received from my parents for my eighth grade Christmas. I had always been a reader but these books were different. I devoured them over the next few months and they helped me define what I wanted to do with my life: Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Good Morning, Miss Dove led to my teaching; and Jo, in Little Women, solidified my writing desire (the second paragraph in chapter 3 was the way I wanted my readers to react and I'm always amazed Louisa showed the scene with only a few sentences).

As a teacher, I want to impact my students the way that Alfie's teacher did for her. We did read some powerful books (when I taught older students) and Bridge to Terabithia will always be a standout for me -- my students gave up recesses several days in a row to find out what happened.