I have a very real and tactile memory of a great number of things from my elementary school, Adams Elementary, in Hamilton, Ohio. I can close my eyes, and almost feel myself there. I can feel the texture of the big-brick walls, the wooden bleachers in the gym, the worn carpet in the front lobby area where we sat indian style singing Christmas carols with Mrs. Zigler every December for six years. I could take you to the spot where my friend, Mike Cochran, slid on the tile in the gym, ripping his knee across a missing piece in the floor. I could take you to the classroom where my heart was first broken by a girl who was, in all likelihood, oblivious to my feelings. Or maybe, the second-grade playground where I helped keep stats for the Wiffle Ball, mini-league where I came in third place for home runs. The stage where I danced the Charleston with Tara Myers for the fifth-grade musical program, failing to catch her properly on my knee on performance night, so we both ended up on our butts on the stage floor, jazz hands flapping in the air.
Or, I could have.
Last year, they tore that school down. It was old and outdated and, I suppose, not good enough to under-educate today’s students. It was replaced by something modern, full of technology, more in line with the vision of what a modern school should be.
Of all the memories I have (I remember things as far back as kindergarten and first grade, though, admittedly, those memories are spotty) some of the best ones center around the library. I don’t remember much about the early reader books. I think the classroom teachers had most of the books we read on the shelves in the rooms. I do remember “graduating” into the mid-reader shelves, and the excitement. And then, the Hardy Boys and the Nancy Drew series were opened up to us, along with some of the Llyod Alexander Chronicles of Prydain books, all of which served as a bridge into “older” books. I went through a JFK phase, and there were lots of books there for me to read. There were also plenty of books about baseball and dolphins and whales. (I once thought seriously about careers in both baseball AND marine biology. I believe that was fifth and sixth grade, respectively.) I read about the Nazis and tried to imagine being Neil Armstrong landing on the moon.
Somewhere around fifth grade (likely, near the end of the year, as I remember it, though that is more guess than true knowledge) the librarian suggested a book by Madeleine L’Engle called, A Ring of Endless Light. I had exhausted all of the series books (yes, every one of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books, as well as the Black Cauldron series, and other similar books) and the librarian thought it might be time for me to read something a little older.
What I am about to say is not a slam on any of the other books I may or may not have read up to that point, but I consider A Ring of Endless Light to be the first legitimate novel I ever read.
Yes, it was a kids book, in many ways, but one of the best things about L’Engle’s books (and, A Ring of Endless Light was just the first of a long string of her novels for both kids and adults I would read in the coming years) was that she didn’t dummy down the story-telling. Yes, looking back, there were decisions she made as a writer that were surely the result of her intended audience, but her books always had a way of pulling me forward, challenging me as a young reader, and treating me like a young adult. Not in a scandalous way. Nor cynical. Intellectually.
Not long after that, maybe within a few days or weeks, even, I read A Wrinkle in Time.
It’s hard to quantify how those books effected me. I still mention them both when someone asks me for my favorites. (Partly, because I’m really not a “favorites” kind of guy, but also because they were transformative books for me.) I still have them on my shelves, even after several rounds of “we’re moving, it’s time to purge the books” that I’ve gone through in the last few years.
And now, A Wrinkle in Time is turning 50 years old. A book that had been in print for more than a decade before I was born, and yet, it still means so much to me. According to the description, there are some fun additions to this anniversary edition. I’ll have to get my hands on one, and when I do, I’ll report back.
Seeing that advertisement for the new edition reminded me, though, of my old school. I was thinking about how A Wrinkle in Time has been replaced by newer, more modern stories. They are slick, hip, more in tune to today’s readers.
And, I suppose that’s okay. There are readers who are having those moments of awakening, but their memories will be populated by different characters. Their hands will remember different walls; they will recall a different style of bleacher, a different near-tragic accident, a different cute girl with a crooked smile who never quite knew how you got cotton-mouthed when you tried to speak to her. They will grow up to want to write, compelled to sit down and put stories onto paper (or, at least, eReaders) because of the stories they will read, and the power those stories will have over their imagination.
For me, though, there’s nothing quite like those first things. Those little bits of childhood that creep into my stories. Those little things, so insignificant in many ways, but still so tangible almost thirty years later.
I can’t wait to hold that book in my hands, re-read it, as if for the first time.