One time, on the way out the driveway, I left my car running and grabbed my camera and a stack of library books from the passenger seat. I crouched amongst a pile of leaves and logs in the forest and arranged the books for a literary photo shoot. Sunset was just about over; I had seen a beautiful stroke of light and couldn’t hold in my thrill for this collection of books I was delivering to school. They were the novels and memoirs I had chosen for my students’ first book list.
I’d hardly met these kids before I knew they knew nothing. They’d had a beautiful, brilliant teacher before me. Others had told me her story—heartwarming—a nod to her character and wisdom. When she and I met to discuss my chaotic and feeble attempt to fill her absence, she was gentle and kind towards me. I had wished she might be my friend. It wasn’t because of her that they knew nothing—they knew much from her guidance. They knew nothing of the world by their strict keeping inside these religious walls built by clergy and family. I was determined, then, to bring reality and integrity into this classroom.
Every idea I ever had while I was a teacher was a scramble. Trying so hard with hardly-there help resulted in a bit of chaos. Any joy I found was fleeting, crushed by the burdensome nature of demands. The book list was my second idea (I dealt well with the failure of the first) and I was so eager to get rolling.
The students were to read one book each quarter. It wasn’t unusual to keep them reading amidst their other work, but in this contained community, where the schoolwork was simple, even for the simple, it felt like an invention of the next century. They were free to respond artistically, rather than via an analytical paper (dull and done by most without reading the required work). I looked forward to their final projects. Their faces showed relief at the freedom to respond with crafts and videos, games and inventions, research or comparison with other work, things according to their tendencies.
I chose the lists with great care, easily approved by my principal, who was in favor of my initiatives early in year one. I chose the best books there were and read each one to refresh. Current, classic, fiction, non. Books that would challenge and press upon these small minds and washed brains. Ideas from outside of this place. Unsafe ground promised rich rewards, promised well-rounded pupils of language and literature. I imagined how they would travel away from this construct they were confined to; far away to fictional lands, to stories from decades ago, meeting characters that remind them of them. These books would move them. I didn’t even hope. I knew that the power of the book could do this.
Within those walls, perspective had a curve to it. What they saw was how I guessed at grades and spend too much time doing this and not enough with that. They spent afternoons seeking after me, where I toiled in the classroom with a pile of red pens and projects. They’d held their breath for me all day, waiting to exhale lament about scenes of rape and harsh language in these books I had chosen, not meant for eighteen-year old eyes and ears and minds. The point was that the world was meant for them, I explained. No one saw.
No one saw this moment in the forest, arranging books on a log and amongst the leaves. Before all the opposition. A photo shoot of the would-be main players in this drama. The first list photo shoot shows beams of the fall sunset bursting through the trees onto the tattered covers of The Red Tent and The Kite Runner. The corner of the library copy of In Cold Blood is pulled back in a curl and the first page shows this: “a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there’”, words from the very first chapter of the iconic work many of my students read about the gruesome murders of a Kansas family.
It, too, was a lonesome area, fighting for ignorant young adults to gain access to a guarded world meant for them to inhabit. I once thought something as basic as books could be the key, but that was before I knew how heavily guarded the world was from these who live censored lives.