A month ago, I mentioned the reading group I joined in kindergarten. Mom recently saw that post, and we compared memories.
One reading program I recall with mixed feelings. It was part of the St. Louis County Public Library’s summer schedule, and I participated at the Daniel Boone Branch where I later held one of my first jobs as a “page”, sorting returned books and putting them back on the shelves.
That job was noteworthy in my teenage years not only because I worked with one of my best high-school friends, but also for being the time when I met Pete the janitor. Pete was also the library’s bouncer from time to time, since he was one of the few male employees in a sea of middle-aged and elderly ladies, and he wasn’t afraid to step up to disruptive patrons and tell them to knock it off or get the hell out.
As a page, I often stayed late after the library closed to chat with Pete in the parking lot. He must have been twice my age, and he turned me on to all kinds of 1970s rock bands. Some I couldn’t find in the library’s collection of vintage, vinyl records, so he let me borrow them from his personal collection. They blew my mind.
Pete was one of two guys I knew like that as a teenager. The other was Jim, who worked as a waiter on the same graveyard shift at the Denny’s restaurant where I got a job as a dishwasher right after graduating. Jim was a huge Led Zeppelin nut with an impressive collection of bootleg concerts on vinyl he let me borrow. For a brief time, I got into going to record conventions because of him and discovered all kinds of awesome live bootlegs for Zep and other bands.
But years before all that, the library had a summer reading program where kids would commit to a goal of reading 100 or more books, enter the authors and titles on a postcard-sized paper, and take it in to get a stamp or a star sticker. Staff tracked every kid’s progress on larger cards that were on display, and there was some reward for kids who read the most books.
I don’t recall the prize because I never once won that contest. After a while, I realized it was impossible, despite my voracious reading habits. I was competing against kids my age who were reading books entirely chosen from the youngest reading levels in the library, short books about Seeing Spot Run and other engrossing topics.
Meanwhile, I chose books from the adult-level science fiction shelves and college-level nonfiction books about animals, space, and history. They took a lot longer to read! So, if you looked at the cards in the library, I was a total loser. I accepted that as my fate and kept reading what I wanted to.
In sixth grade, my teacher created an advanced reading group for a handful of students in his class. I don’t recall all the kids’ names, but we read stuff way beyond a sixth-grade level, including Mutiny on the Bounty and at least the first two books in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. If I recall correctly, we ran out of time to finish Second Foundation, but I read it on my own.
That teacher was James Schwab. The group was one of the best things to happen to me in elementary school, and Mr. Schwab remains one of the greatest teachers I ever had. He knew I needed more advanced material to engage my mind, and he provided a supportive environment in the reading group, clarifying things, answering questions, and helping us find our own answers in the adult-level books.
Mr. Schwab was one of the kindest, most trustworthy adults I ever met, and I constantly asked him questions about how the world worked. For example, I noticed that if I had salt crystals on a metal spoon and breathed on them in the cold, my breath fogged up the spoon except for tiny circles around the salt. Why did that happen? What was going on? Who could I ask but Mr. Schwab?
It turns out he didn’t know the answer, and he told me so. He also suggested we do some research on it.
I was accustomed to adults who always acted like they had all the answers, and even by sixth grade I had come to suspect that many adults had no idea how anything worked. They only wanted to preserve the illusion of their authority. Mr. Schwab was one of the first grown-ups I ever met who would just flat-out admit that he didn’t have a clue about something but would also take an interest in discovering with me what the answers were and could guide me in my quest to learn.
Somewhere around that time, the school district contacted my parents to inquire about having me skip a grade, based on my test scores. My parents declined the offer. For many years, I was angry about that decision. I was beyond bored with lessons targeted at my grade level, and I believed that skipping a grade would have put me in more intellectually challenging classes where I would feel more engaged.
Later, Mom explained to me that she felt I was mentally ready to skip a grade, but not socially. I’ve never been happy about that, but she might have been right. I would have been in classes with people hitting puberty a year before me, with all my elementary-school classmates a year behind me. My social skills were admittedly underdeveloped at that age, and they have always lagged behind my other skills.
On the other hand, maybe being in a grade that better suited my early cognitive development would have also improved my social development, since I might not have been so bored and angry about being bored in every single class all the time. We’ll never know, will we? What I do know is that I absolutely hated high school, even in the “advanced college placement” classes I took in my later teens, and I was perpetually getting in trouble for my rebellious attitude.
My high-school experience totally turned me off from college after graduation, even though I could have received a scholarship for a free ride to at least one university just based on my test scores. By high-school graduation, I had more than enough of dim-witted adults trying to force me into their molds and make me memorize meaningless stuff, then write nonsense about it.
Not all my teachers were bad. Mrs. Michelle Rodgers, my first guitar teacher, is forever an angel in my mind for demystifying music in general and the instrument that would become my reason for living for more than twenty years. Mr. Dave Jenkins, my speech-and-debate team coach, was so awesome that I have always considered him more a friend than a teacher. Mrs. Judy Buschmann and I had such great conversations about literature after her class that I was constantly late to my next class. I gladly ignored all scolding for being tardy if it meant I could talk to her about art and writing and critical thinking for a few minutes longer.
Mrs. Buschmann also founded my high school’s first Writing Center, a room full of computers in the late 1980s equipped with WordPerfect software. She enlisted me to be her assistant to help kids my age brainstorm, compose, and write their papers for various classes. It was so long ago that I don’t even bother putting the experience on my résumé anymore, but it undoubtedly informed my future as a freelance editor who helps people develop and publish their books.
So, thank you to the teachers, librarians, and other adults who helped me expand my literary and musical horizons at a young age. Life ends up being about so much more than what you expect as kid, or your standardized test scores in school. Sometimes it boils down to what inspired you and who encouraged you along the way to discovering your future.