Teachers can have an impact on students, and often they don’t know just how much of an impact they’ve had.
When we showed up for our class back in 1958, our second-grade teacher had a strange assignment for us. Mrs. Powers handed each of us a blank piece of paper. We were instructed to write down the day and time of each television show we watched each week. I dutifully racked my brains and did my best, carefully covering each half hour from morning to night, giving special attention to the dessert that was Saturday mornings. Since school was in session I didn’t get to cover the shows I would watch during the day in the Summer, but it was still an impressive list: I had to use both sides of the paper, and not just because my handwriting was so large at that age. Mrs. Powers collected the pages and went back to her desk to face us. With a voice that had the chill of death, she pronounced our fate: she had already conspired with our parents, and for the next month we were not going to watch television. At all.
I don’t remember much about the rest of that day, I was too shaken up. What were we supposed to do without television? Sure, I spent some time playing with friends outside or playing simple board games, but the bulk of the day outside of school was spent plopped down in front of our 15-inch black and white television. That afternoon and night I was miserable when I was banished to a bedroom while I could just barely hear my brothers watching shows. It was small consolation that I could go into my parents’ bedroom and listen to their radio, but by that late in the fifties, most of the old radio shows had been replaced by music (I can still remember listening to the Lone Ranger on the radio before we got our first television).
My Mother could tell I needed help, and the next day she left my brothers at home with our Dad and took me back to the school where miraculously the library was open. No doubt this was all part of the no television plan since I can’t recall a single other time the school library was open outside of school hours. She helped me pick out a small stack of books to read. Sadly, the books we took home were all pretty simple, and within a day or two, I had read them all and was miserable again.
Mom always seemed to have books around to read, even though three kids under the age of eight didn’t leave her much time to read. The next day I found out where the books came from. We piled into her shiny blue Impala and traveled to a small building on Jackson Avenue, the closest thing Syosset had to a downtown. We were greeted by the musty smell of old books when we went inside, and that was my first introduction to the Syosset Public Library. Mom dropped me off in the kiddie section, and I was less than pleased to find more of the same picture books that the school library had. I enjoyed reading comic books, mostly the birth of DC Silver age comics at that time, but there were no comics at the library and I was not interested in swimming in the kiddie pool of picture books. She came back after finding a few books for herself, and I complained (whined?) about not finding anything to read. She explained that she usually read mysteries, and led me over to the Juvenile section of the library. She pulled down one of the Hardy Boys books and asked if I thought I could read that. The book had a colorful wraparound dust jacket, and the inside cover had orange pictures that were reprinted from older copies of their books. There was another picture across from the title page, but the inside was almost all text. Ick. Reading the words was no problem, so I shrugged and told her I’d take it home and read it.
And my life changed.
It took me a few days to read that first Hardy Boys book, but I quickly got better at reading. I continued reading the Hardy Boys series. Near the end of each book, there was always a teaser sentence that contained the title of the next book, and I quickly decided that the books had to be read in order. It was a challenge to track them all down, and at times I had to actually buy the books (which cost all of $1.95 at the time). I branched out into Tom Swift Junior books (the senior books were too dated), and that led me to science fiction and I found Asimov and Bradbury and Clarke and eventually all the rest.
Sure, after a month I watched television again, but not nearly as much, and from that day on I probably read a few books every week until College came along and destroyed reading for me…but that’s a tale for a different time.
Perhaps before I’m done I should try to put this in context for you. Imagine if you showed up at school one day and you were told that for the next month you would not be allowed to use your phone or view the internet or play computer games or watch television. Do you think your life might feel disrupted?
Here’s Jimmy Buffett finding his own Love in the Library.