Bye-bye books #SOL21 29/31

I’ve been at my current school for almost eight years. When I arrived, I was awed by our book room: a cavernous space filled with rows and rows of giant, heavy, rolling bookshelves, mostly full to the hilt. That first year, I went down to the book room just to revel in all of the books.

Of course, I never stayed long because the room was centimetres deep in dust and smelled strongly of book mold. Most of the time, my revelling was quick: I scurried in, got a class set of books, and scurried back out, largely leaving the books to other scurrying creatures. Then, at the end of the year, part of my job was counting the books.

That proved to be nearly impossible – books were everywhere and, while they had clearly been vaguely alphabetized at some point, they now appeared to have been organized by someone whose preferred writing system veered more towards the arcane than strict alphabetic. Books were stacked haphazardly on the counters near the front, squirreled away on back shelves so no one else could find them and left, lonely, in the classrooms where they had landed. That summer, I spent sweaty hours trying rearrange the books into some order – any order – struggling to stay in the room long enough without being overwhelmed by the dust. I got somewhere, but not far enough. The work would have to continue into the next year.

As I reorganized, I began to purge. We had set after set of books that were falling apart or mildewed beyond use. We found books that no one in the department recognized. One school year, I declared that no one should leave the book room without throwing away at least three old books. We barely made a dent in things.

Over the years, we’ve used part of a PD day to purge (just 30 minutes to stretch our legs, I swear!) and one teacher even came in with his wife and spent hours rearranging books into a *much* better system than the original. At first, I kept track of the books we threw away, but eventually that seemed both fruitless and depressing. Still, we found some great things: an old textbook that had been signed out to one of our current teachers – although he had attended another high school; a book once used by a parent of one of our students; and an entire set of books published in 1943, before our school was even built, before our school board even existed. Each time, we marveled, shared, and threw them away.

Throwing books away is emotionally exhausting, so I tend to do it in fits and starts. Sometimes it makes me sad: I have thrown away books I love as their pages flutter out, falling to the floor in an attempt to escape; I have thrown away books I hated in high school, their spines stuck together by duct tape until they form one big clump of unreadable print; I have thrown away books I’ve never read whose covers whisper of bygone eras and stories I don’t yet know, but whose brittle yellow pages actively prevent me from reading them. Sometimes I go in excited to purge: we need to make space for new books! The new books rarely come – our budget doesn’t buy much – but the idea of making space is invigorating. Sometimes I’m wistful: why don’t we read these anymore? Once upon a time, I loved this book. And sometimes I’m angry: why are we still handing out these books? What must the students think when we hand them such damaged material? They certainly know what we value.

Throwing them out is physically exhausting, too, and no matter how much I clean and toss, the dust never seems to dissipate much. I can only spend so much time in the book room, even with a mask on for Covid, before my eyes get red and I start to cough. Then I have to leave.

Today I dragged a colleague in with me, and we threw away three bins of books. Yes, I have been doing this off and on for eight years and I can still fill three bins in a day. (Our bins are biggish trash bins on wheels – not huge ones.) I shuddered as I threw away Fahrenheit 451 – I whispered a silent apology to Bradbury, but the pages were no longer attached to the cover – and Brave New World – but even Huxley would have had to acknowledge that a mouse had eaten through a fair bit of several of his books. I threw away copies of books that haven’t left the book room since 1976. I found books that had last been signed out before I was born. I threw them out. I let go of some Jane Eyre (sigh) and a media textbook from the early 80s. I didn’t feel very bad at all about throwing away some Hemingway short stories, though I had a small pang about the really old Steinbecks. I imagined blackout poetry projects and repurposed book projects and collages and… I threw them out. I checked the contents of poetry anthologies, sighed over my favourites, and tossed them and their cracked spines and missing covers in the bin. It was cathartic and awful and it had to be done.

Somehow, this feels like my last stand: I can almost see the end of the purge. Surely, surely by the end of this school year, we will have a book room that represents what we actually teach (or what we might legitimately teach). The books in there will not be trashy things with yellow pages that creak and smell and fall out as we touch them. Our students will have books that honour them – at least that’s what I hope. Once this round is over, I can give the principal a tour of our near-barren shelves and then I can ask for new books. Right? Right? (Cross your fingers for us!)

When you write with https://twowritingteachers.org/ in March or on Tuesdays, you’ll find lots of people who love books as much as you do.

A nighttime visitor

I was reading Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It isn’t a properly scary book – not like scary movies, anyway – though I suppose I wouldn’t know since I don’t watch scary movies – but it is vaguely terrifying. It’s about being a child and, well, let’s call it “menacing”: no jump scares; lots of tense terror. Whatever it was, I could not put it down because I was too afraid to stop reading.

Sometime after midnight, I gave myself a stern talking to – I was a grown woman with children for heaven’s sake. I gave myself a little leeway since my husband was away on a trip, leaving me alone in our bed, but my visiting in-laws were asleep in the guest room right next to my room. They would expect me to wake up tomorrow at a normal hour, and I needed to get some sleep.

I turned another page. And another. I could not look away from the darkness that wormed its way out of the book and into my mind. Eventually, my eyes drooped closed. I had just enough consciousness left to reach up and turn off the reading light.

As my mind slipped fretfully towards slumber, the pocket door that led into our bedroom scraped open. My eyes flew open and the rest of my body shut down: I could no more move than scream. A tall, pale figure came slowly into view, almost stumbled – just there! – hovered for a moment, then turned and glided away, scraping the door closed as it left.

My lips had gone numb; so had my fingertips. I remained paralyzed in the bed, listening for some indication that what I had just seen was real, afraid that what I’d just seen was real. After seconds, minutes, hours had passed, I raised a trembling hand to the chain above my head and pulled. The light came on, though it now seemed nearly powerless against the dark. My hand groped towards the bedside table. I found the book and opened it again.

I read all the way to the end. I cannot remember when I was finally able to sleep, when the characters were as safe as they were going to be, when pure exhaustion overtook my fear.

I stumbled down to the kitchen the next morning. Everyone was chipper, everything was bright: Grandpa Jim’s beard practically glowed white; Grandma Shirley hummed and sang while she made breakfast. Hollow-eyed, I watched, wondering if I should say anything about last night’s visitation. Would they believe me? Had I imagined it?

As we settled in to eat, Grandpa Jim started to talk, “A funny thing happened to me last night.” My head snapped up; my sense were wildly alert. Had he seen it, too? “I got up to go to the bathroom, got turned around and walked right into your bedroom before I realized it. I’m just glad I didn’t wake you up.” He returned to his granola and I stared at him for a full minute before I burst into hysterical laughter.

Not a ghost; just a grandpa.

I’ve never forgotten the book. You could do worse than to read The Ocean at the End of Lane as Halloween approaches – or anytime, really.

Many thanks to TwoWritingTeachers.org for hosting this weekly gathering of writers.

I might have a problem #SOL19 7/31

This is on my bedside table

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I just finished Son of a Trickster last night, and I really enjoyed the way that that Indigenous narrator’s voice makes sense of his actions, which from the outside definitely look like those of a druggie kid failing out of school, and reveals the motives behind the appearance. It’s the first of a trilogy, and it felt like it – much of the real action doesn’t come until right at the end and it feels a little unfinished.

That book is sitting on top of these two. A Velocity of Being was a gift, and it is perfect in

img_8230many ways: it’s beautiful and has amazing illustrations, it has a nice heft to it and is a bit oversized without being as unwieldy as a coffee table book, and it comprises letters from all sorts of amazing writers. I am nibbling away at it steadily. Near that is Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine. I was about halfway through this lyrical, thoughtful contemplation of the intersection between science and religion, our desire for permanence and our experience of change, when I had to return it to the library because someone else had it on hold (sigh). Now I have it back, but I feel like I need a bit of a slower pace in order to really appreciate Lightman’s prose. I have it until the 15th and March break starts tomorrow afternoon, so I should be good.

The thing is, that those three are sitting next to theseimg_8231

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

which looks like this up close
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So now you see the problem. I’ve kind of written off the ones in the right hand picture because they are holding up my alarm clock – so I’ve decided that they are more furniture than actual choice at the moment. And I’ve read almost all of the book on dyslexia; I just like to have it nearby in case I start freaking out about my child and many of my students having dyslexia, which I do on occasion. Four of the ones on top of that have been borrowed and I really need to give them back (sorry Tara, Debbie & Anthony) but I also really want to read them first. Anyway, they’re furniture now, so they have to wait.

Five of those in the left hand picture are library books. The EA who works in my classroom says that I am not allowed to check out any more books until I work my way through these. This makes perfect sense (which is one of the many reasons she is amazing), but my library hold list is pretty long, and I didn’t dare tell her that another one has already arrived at my local branch. Plus, they all look so good. And they come recommended. And they are so different! How am I supposed to choose which one to read next? Sometimes I nibble at a few and make a choice, other times I just pick up the one that looks right and dive in. Right now, I’m a little overwhelmed. I might have a problem.

The overwhelm is why my nightstand rarely gets this full. Usually the guilt overcomes me and I have to clear the decks. I get to feeling bad for the books sitting there forlornly, begging to be read, and I have to start returning them, whispering promises that someone else will come for them, someone will open them, turn their pages, love them. Sometimes I put them right back on my hold list, promising that I will take them back when the time is right.  But today this is my nightstand – any suggestions for which book I should start with tonight?

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