Tuesday, October 21st, 2008 • 1 Comment on The Books (and the Teachers) That Stay With Us
When I was in the eighth grade, I got to be a teaching assistant during one of my class periods. It was a program for the “gifted” kids and I jumped at the chance to be an assistant for my favorite Reading teacher, Mrs. Cox. I had been in her class in sixth grade and she had made a memorable impression on me for a couple of reasons: she was sarcastic as hell (I think I learned my sarcasm from Mrs. Cox) and she loved to read almost as much as I did. Oh, and she used to loan me books. I was pretty much reading adult fiction by fifth grade and somehow managed to miss an awful lot of adolescent and YA fiction as a result, but oh!, the world of adult fiction was wonderful! It was filled with complex plots and interesting characters and settings far beyond my limited imagination… and sex. Mustn’t forget the sex! Adult fiction is filled with sex!
As a teacher’s assistant, I got to do things like straighten the classroom and erase chalk boards and even grade papers. I was in heaven! I never really aspired to be a teacher, but I loved being surrounded by the accouterments of academia—pens and paper and books, wonderful, wonderful books! One of the conditions of getting to read during my teaching assistant period was that I had to finish all the other stuff Mrs. Cox assigned me first. Honestly, she didn’t give me all that much to do and I spent probably thirty minutes of the hour reading. I got credit for reading! Seriously, is it any wonder that I love school to this day?
One class period, Mrs. Cox took the sixth grade class to the library and left me in the classroom to grade quizzes. She had left a stack of books on the table for me and told me, as always, that whenever I was done grading I could read. I tried, I really tried, to grade the quizzes before going through the books, but my little eighth grade bookworm’s heart just leapt every time I looked at that stack of fat paperback novels. I think I managed to grade a handful of quizzes before I couldn’t take it anymore. I dove into the books and started reading Foxfire by Anya Seton.
I had never read anything like Foxfire before. Set in the Great Depression era of the 1930s, it tells the story of a young woman from New York who marries a half-Apache miner and moves with him out west. I was captivated by Ms. Seton’s descriptions of the Arizona desert and the strange tension she created between her main characters. At the core, it is a romance—but it is so much more. An adventure, a mystery, a frozen moment in history, Foxfire hooked my thirteen year old imagination. I wanted to be Amanda, I wanted to run away to Arizona with Dart and hunt for treasure.
I had only intended to read a few pages of my wonderful new find—just enough to quench my reading hunger—but within minutes I was thoroughly engrossed. Shoulders hunched, long hair falling my face, legs tucked up under me, I wasn’t in Margate Middle School in Florida, I was in Lodestone, Arizona. I had been transported. So much so, I did not hear Mrs. Cox come into the room. She called my name and I jumped, feeling guilty and waiting for her to say something sarcastic (which was far worse than her yelling at me, believe me). She only asked what I was reading, nodded in approval, grabbed the papers she had forgotten and went back to the library. She didn’t tell me to stop reading and get back to grading, but I did. I tucked Foxfire away and graded like a mad girl, straightening everything on her desk for good measure. I felt guilty for shirking my duties and for getting caught reading (though it was hardly the first time I had snuck in some reading time). I tucked Foxfire in my book bag and picked up where I had left off on the bus ride home. I think I read that book three times before I returned it to Mrs. Cox. I was like that when I was a kid—I’d read a book straight through, go back to page one and start over. I hungered for those words on the page and Ms. Seton’s story had struck a nerve.
It took me until I was an adult to understand why Mrs. Cox hadn’t been annoyed about my reading that day. I was reading! Reading! I worked in a library long enough to know that raising a reader is not an automatic or easy thing. The born-to-read types like myself aren’t all that common. I was getting more of an education in literature, vocabulary, history and storytelling in my furtive reading of Foxfire than I was by putting big red X’s next to misspelled vocabulary words of sixth grades. Mrs. Cox fed my hunger for books and indulged my impatience because she knew the value of my passion.
I have thought about that book often over the years, wondering why that one—of the thousands I read as a kid—stuck in my mind. At least part of it was the circumstances—I felt like I had let down my favorite teacher/mentor. That doesn’t explain why I remember the details of the plot, the characters’ names and quirks nearly thirty years after I read it. That is storytelling skill—something Ms. Seton had and something writers spend their entire lives learning. There are a couple dozen books or so like that which have stayed with me for decades. I’ve looked up Foxfire on Amazon now and again, but it went out of print. First published in 1951, I read the 1978 reprint. Funny, I didn’t know it was an “old” book until recently—as a kid I think I believed all the books Mrs. Cox was giving me to read were “new” books—new stories, new authors. Had she told me (or had I thought to check the publication date) I was reading a book that was written before I was born I probably would have wrinkled my nose and declined.
Last month, Chicago Review Press reprinted Anya Seton’s Foxfire. I bought my copy last week, anxious to find out if the story has stood the test of time, if my forty-one year old imagination will be as captivated as my thirteen year old imagination. I’m only into the second chapter (I don’t read as fast as I used to, sadly), but I’ve noticed two startling things—the pace and tension are still there and still as crisp I remember—and Mrs. Cox is still there, watching me read and nodding knowingly.