My home was very loud, but school was even worse. The entire world seemed to be a scary, chaotic mess. Even though I might have been precociously young, I was still desperate for a little peace. I would soon find my first safe place to inhabit. The year was nineteen-eighty. My sanctuary was the public library. I was drawn to the sense of order that it evoked. Everything was categorized and shelved properly. It wasn’t only the quiet dignity that drew me in. I was always thrilled by the idea of getting to bring the books home.
With that kind of power came responsibility. I was overwhelmed by the choices. There were these tall and imposing shelves. The aisles were long and teeming with everything from novels about blood-soaked battlefields to tax preparation guides. I was bored senseless by the rows of biographies with serious men haunting the covers. I felt insignificant compared to the adult world that inhabited those dusty tomes.
I really wasn’t particularly good at reading yet, but I was ready to graduate from the children’s section. It could have been that I only liked the shape of the oversized books, but I found myself attracted to it, returning again and again. I discovered a Rube Goldberg picture book. I could easily get lost in the unusual contraptions that filled those large pages. I checked it out so many times. Soon I was discovering even more entertaining and delightful works, like comic compendiums. Although I grew tired of my choices, I was still in heaven while I was at the library.
Several years later, my mother introduced me to the tiny, and even dustier used bookstore. I think the reason I wasn’t claustrophobic was because, so few people were ever there. I was thrilled to find out about these hallowed rooms, ancillary to the structured public library. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone by now, and these repositories of knowledge were simply overflowing with text and script.
I would be rewarded with trips to the bookstore for doing my chores, getting my room extra clean for example. For me, going to the used bookstore was like other kids’ trips to get ice cream. My mom taught me that I could keep trading in my books. I would bring my worn-out Dr. Seuss books and leave with collected Mad Magazine paperbacks. You were lucky to find anything so frivolous at the library. I was learning that if you kept looking deeper, you could find marvelous gems.
I began to read books more than once. My favorite book to repeatedly peruse was The Wind in the Willows. It had such vivid writing. The book took me on a journey. I envied Mr. Toad. I wanted to have an adventure. I needed an escape.
I was held back in my third year because I was slightly younger than my class due to a scheduling change that happened after I was enrolled. My parents were fighting a lot and there was talk of divorce. My grades started slipping. I started reading heavier subjects. I got interested in non-fiction. I wanted to have some control over the world around me, and I believed reading everything I could was the best way to achieve it.
I kept getting behind in school, but I still had a passion for learning. I found out about the spelling bee. I studied very intently. I worked every day and night to hone my prowess. When the big day finally arrived, I beat the sixth grader. I was praised for my ability. I finally felt good about being an insular bookworm. Alas, that happened to be the end of the road. At the regionals, I lost on the very first word I had to spell. It felt like an omen for the six years of secondary school.
Junior high was a nightmare, so by the time I was a sophomore, the librarian let me know in no uncertain terms that I was spending far too much time in the library. High school was proving to be even less tolerant than middle school.
“Do you have a pass from your teacher to be here?” the librarian snarled.
“I do, I just have to go get it,” I lied as I sped out the door as quickly as I could.
I couldn’t always avoid the bullies that filled those gray-painted hallways. However, my devotion to reading equipped me with the tools to think. A sense of humor, and ability to dazzle with language was often just enough to allow me to escape disaster. At my typical suburban high school, if you had colored hair, and your clothes were different, it was equal to wearing a target on your back. I tried to become a ghost; however, by my senior year, I didn’t want to hide anymore. I would find a way to have my voice heard. I enrolled in journalism and started writing for the school newspaper.
I had been reading the hardcore, punk rock fanzine, Maximum Rocknroll. A fanzine is a self-published magazine, usually devoted to one subject. The columns that I was reading were all about people’s passions. With those varied authors’ influence as my template, I jumped in feet first, and began writing my own. I would dig for the truth, even if it was difficult. I called it, “Scratching the Surface.” I named the column that because, although there was so much that I really wanted to say, I knew that I could only give the highlights. It was a high school paper after all.
In nineteen-ninety-one, it was easy to ruffle feathers. I wrote about a boy’s first mohawk. I wrote about the appropriation of the counterculture. I wrote about the lack of black history education in schools. I touched on so many topics that, alongside my monthly column, I was asked to add an editorial with every issue–a first for the paper. I wrote about the redundancy of suspensions. I am even embarrassed to say, I wrote philosophy. Like Mr. Toad, I had found my wild ride, and though I never wanted to quit, it would be a long time after I graduated before I would find myself writing again.
Several years ago, I was offered the chance to pen a column for Maximum Rocknroll. I have spent four years teaching multiple disabled teens, so when I was asked to write about being a punk rocker and a para educator, I jumped at the chance. A year later, the article was published in book form as an anthology titled, Teaching Resistance. It is available at my local public library. I feel like I have come full circle. My words are now sitting on one of those long, gray shelves. My book would be confusing for a child to read. I would have skipped right over it in search of something lighthearted.
Picture books might seem silly to most adults. They will never win the highest award given to writers, but maybe they should. The books that grip a young person’s imagination open the door to the entire universe. Books can even open doors to the seemingly impossible, like a chance to quietly meditate and grow in an increasingly chaotic world.