Monday, August 04, 2008


One week into the job, one week away from meeting my students. I have a lot more to think through and say about school, but I'm going to wait a while more and instead delve into some reminiscing. Before I do, though, a heartfelt thanks to all of you who wrote/commented/called to commiserate and encourage me after my last entry. It means a lot.

See? I'm already being sentimental! You'll see why.

I think it first started when I was unpacking the boxes labeled "8th Grade Classroom Library". I was thrilled to discover these boxes in the book storage room at my new school, since I want to make books as attainable as possible for my students. I had one boxful of books I've bought at used book sales/books I accidentally bought duplicates of (I can't for the life of me figure out why I own 4 copies of "The Scarlet Letter"), but I was glad to have my collection flushed out.

It looks like the previous teacher gathered books for her classroom library from the same sources I did, since they all had those yellowing pages and the used-bookstore paper smell. Do you know that smell? Have you ever walked into the back of a used bookstore and, finding yourself alone in the aisle and completely surrounded by books, breathed deeply through the nose and thought "that's what knowledge smells like"? No? Maybe that's just me.

Sorting through the books, though, was startling. Over and over again I would pull a book out of the box, glance at the cover, and have a sudden and total sensory-recall. I do mean all of the senses. One book even triggered a bit of nausea; not because of the plot, but because it was a book I read on one of our car trips. I would get so engrossed in the books that I would read until my motion sickness got so bad that I HAD to either put it down or throw up. So, I'd hold the book with my thumb marking my place in one hand while I put my forehead against the cold window and take in deep breaths of the little bit of fresh air from the crack you could make with the latch of the windows in the backseat of the minivan until the headache and nausea passed enough for me to keep reading. Repeat until done with book or we reach our destination.

Sometimes specific images from the books themselves are what immediately spring to mind, small moments that for whatever are totally embedded in my permanent memory; such as:

- The file cabinet full of clippings in folders in From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler
- The description of skin being turned into lampshades in Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself
- The soft red light in the redecorated attic in A Little Princess
- The partially-eaten face of the pilot in Hatchet
- The shimmers in Island of the Blue Dolphins
- The impression of the dad's button on the protagonist's face in Bridge to Terabithia
- The sound of Bach on an organ in an empty chapel in The Small Rain
- The sound of the sword hitting the silver chair in The Chronicles of Narnia
- The bandages in After the Dancing Days
- The uncooked pancakes in Beezus and Ramona
- The wiggling toes in Pippi Longstocking
- The one million squares in Cheaper By The Dozen
- The gingerbread stars in Mary Poppins
- The writing tablet smashing over Gilbert's head in Anne of Green Gables
- The mud and the wool suits of James Herriot
- The sausage pillow in Little Women
- The pickles in The BFG
- The ax in Where the Red Fern Grows
- The broken china doll in The Wizard of Oz
- The burning flesh in Johnny Tremain
- The bumpy sides of coins in Follow My Leader

And on and on and on.

Take this list (from a blog my sister sent me that inspired this entry), specifically looking at Laura Ingalls Wilder's series:

Blacking on wallpaper. Black-eyed papoose. Sugar snow. Vanity cakes. Water splashed on freezing plants. Bad wells. Real white sugar, wrapped in brown paper. A tin cup and two pennies. Sprigging. (????) Jigging. (?????) Jack, the brindle dog. Baths in used bathwater. School for the Blind. Common Taters on the Axe.

Like Jezebel says, "These are, like some 1800s Goodnight, Moon, seared on my brain." Seriously. Every single one of those images I vividly recall, but I can't for the life of me remember any of the math I learned after about 9th grade. Trig? Calculus? Gone. But, as Janelle and Christine witnessed when we took our day trip to the cabin, I do remember how to twist newspaper into sticks when you are out of smaller wood for kindling. Thank goodness Pa taught Laura how to do that during the long winter!

I don't know if you will understand when I tell you that these books from my childhood trigger senses for me that are somewhere in between smells and tastes. Do you remember in A Room With A View when Eleanor Lavish tells Charlotte that every city has a smell? Aside from the joke about what European cities usually smell like, every city I've been to does have it's own sort of memory-taste. That's one of the main reasons I like to travel - I love that I know what the air and atmosphere of Moscow, Paris, New Orleans, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago, Tijuana, Dover, or Venice is like inside of me. I breathe in those cities, and I breathe in my books and later, when I'm outside of them, I can touch them and be home.


  1. Regarding the smell...

    It's what kept me away from books for a long time, and the reason I cannot enter a used book store. Because contrary to your belief, I believe the smell to be that of cat pee, oldness and death. Also probably just me...

  2. I am so sorry to hear what you are encountering in your new classroom! It is such a slap in the face to have devoted so much of yourself and your time just to be told that you are simply a medium through which another's agenda is played out. You are an amazing teacher who has the ability to foster and develop a love of language in your students. Hold on to that!!! I am convinced that there will come a day when teachers with a passion for what they do will again be in high demand! I hope the next few weeks will prove more encouraging! Best of luck! Oh, and I loved the childhood story nostalgia! My latest connection is my late night marathons of "How I Met Your Mother" while I attack my ironing basket. Every time I pull out the Niagra starch I can hear the theme song start up in my mind!