When I was a child, the Bookmobile would come every three weeks to my schoolyard. It was, to my 8 year old eyes, a giant thing - an old converted Greyhound bus lined on both sides, top to bottom, with shelves. And on those shelves were books. Books and books and more books. It was my idea of what heaven would be like.
I would rush out as soon as school was over and be as close to the front of the line as possible. Once inside, I was often the last to leave. I looked at every shelf, searching for books that I hadn't yet read. I would pile them in my arms, one on top of the other, taking as many as I could possibly carry on the eight block walk back home. Once home, I would take the first one off the pile and dig in. Hours I would spend laying on my bed or on the living room sofa buried in a story of someone, somewhere.
One day, in particular, stands out in my memory. I had my pile of books in hand and went to the checkout lady. As she began going through the books, she started to frown. I had books that were 8th grade books, not 3rd grade books. I couldn't have those. "Why not?" I asked. "Because if you read these books now, you won't have anything to read when you reach 8th grade," was the reply. I argued that I had already read all the 3rd grade books, and 4th, and 5th, and so on. She would not budge. I could not have books above my grade level. I left empty-handed.
When I arrived home, my mother, knowing full well what day it was, asked me where my books were. Out came the story. And out came her coat. She marched me back the 8 blocks to school. When we arrived, the Bookmobile lady was getting ready to close the doors and leave. My mother insisted she let us in. She turned to me and said, "Get your books - whichever ones you want." Then she turned to the Bookmobile lady and had a conversation. My mother was polite, courteous, and insistent. The librarian argued. My mother stood her ground. When it was all over, I went out the door with my 8th grade books, plus one more just to be ornery. My mother helped me carry them home.
My mother, with her 8th grade education, understood something far better than the librarian with the college degree. She understood interest. What my reading level was supposed to be given my age was not important. What was important was allowing me to read the things that I was interested in. What was important was encouragement and freedom to explore. What was important was the reading - no matter the subject matter or the designated reading level.
Several years later when I was in ninth grade I had a paperback copy of Peyton Place sitting on my desk in English class. Upon seeing it my teacher's eyebrows raised and she asked with some alarm "Does your mother know you're reading this?" I didn't understand her concern or even really her question. Of course my mother knew what I was reading. And of course it was okay with her. It was a book. As such, it was fair game. And it wasn't until the teacher asked the question that I even considered the possibility that there might be "inappropriate" reading material. Books were books. They were there to read. If you could understand them, you were free to read them. If you couldn't understand them, you were free to try. You were expected to get out the dictionary to help you if there were words you didn't understand.
My mother and father had little money. They could not afford to give their children excessive gifts of toys or games or clothes or records. (For those of you too young to remember, records were made from vinyl and played music - the old-fashioned version of a CD, which is what we had before we downloaded music off the internet onto iPods.) They could not afford to take me on vacations to amusement parks or other 'playgrounds'. They could not afford to send me to expensive summer camps where we learned to ride horses or play basketball or soccer. Gifts were few and far between.
But gifts they gave me - in teaching me the joy of reading and giving me the freedom to read what I wanted to. It cost them nothing but the determination to stand up and defend my interest and the gas money to drive me to the downtown library every three weeks to choose my books, once I outgrew the Bookmobile. This gift has outlasted any childhood trinket I may have wanted and taken me farther than they ever imagined.
So, this weekend as the temperature and humidity rise, I'm headed to the sofa with a book. Today I'm reading about the city of Florence during the Renaissance and the reign of the Medicis. My mother, Florence, I think would be pleased.
14 hours ago