Small Wonders: Finding worlds within a good book

A leader of our community. You heard it right. A leader of our community. That’s what they call me.

I spew 800 words of whimsy, wit and wisdom — OK, maybe the first two — once a week in the local newspaper, and they bestow this title upon me.

And I’m not just looking for a reason to use the word “bestow.”

You know who else is a leader of our community?

A police officer. A dance instructor. A junior high school principal. An animal control officer. A pirate. And a ninja.

And what does this title get us? Not a key to the city, a ribbon-cutting at the Americana at Brand expansion or a six-figure salary for non-attendance at fictitious city board meetings. No, it gets you something much more valuable.

You get to read from your favorite childhood book to a classroom of elementary school students.

Along with the aforementioned dignitaries, I was asked by the Glenoaks Elementary School PTA to share what I do with a roomful of eager young minds at Guess Who's Coming to Read Day last Friday. I would tell them how reading has been an essential part of reaching my personal and career goals.

The program, a part of Read Across America Week, encourages literacy and learning by establishing role models for students from within our community.

Apparently, they didn't do their homework. They could have checked with Mrs. Grossman, my sixth-grade teacher when I went to Glenoaks 31 years ago. She's still there — in the same classroom — and could have told them reading was not my strong suit back then. Running the projector, making Elmer's Glue balls and wiping my nose on my sleeve, yes. Reading, no.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival was that I was overdressed. The policeman, pirate, ninja and animal control officer all came in uniform. The latter even brought a pet opossum. Had I known I was supposed to come in uniform, I would have worn a dirty T-shirt, baggy jeans and grungy running shoes like any good writer. I did bring a four-day-old growth of beard, but nobody wanted to pet it.

The second thing I noticed was the woefully insufficient selection in the school's library. No “Tropic of Cancer” or “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.” No Anaïs Nin or Tolstoy. And the only copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” had been checked out by an earnest third-grader. Good luck with that, kid.

So I settled on “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” a book I fell in love with when Mrs. Grossman read it to us in 1978.

Few things have changed in the classrooms. Same desks, chairs, enameled cabinets. And same students. When I tell them that I went to their school so many years ago, their jaws dropped.

“Back when they had real chalkboards?” one asked.

Yes, I told him, the white dry-erase board looming stoically behind me.

“When you used to bang the erasers together?”

And I suddenly missed the smell of chalk dust.

I tell them that I am a writer and explain why reading is so important, not only for writers, but for everyone. Then, suddenly lacking anything else to talk about with 32 9-year-olds, I ask them what they want to be when they grow up.

Score: Hackneyed Grownup - Child Dialogue 1, Originality 0.

Up went the hands one by one. A doctor, a lawyer, a baseball player. One young lady wanted to be a football player, while one young lad awaiting his first growth spurt wanted to be an NBA player. An animator, a surgeon and an actress-slash-singer. Yes, she did say “slash.”

I'm not getting much accomplished by way of inspiring them, but I am eating up the clock. Up went a hand in the back.

“How did they find you?

Good question.

I announce, “Time to read!”

“Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. This story is about something that happened to them when they were sent away from London during the war.…”

Slowly the room went quiet; otherwise twitchy and impatient kids started to settle in, behave and actually listen. Just as they had 33 years ago, the walls transformed to a chamber in a far-off English manor, empty but for an intriguing wardrobe, the sort with a looking-glass in the door. As Lucy the Valiant stepped into that wardrobe, we all stepped with her.

I didn't get it back then. Luckily, despite my indifference, someone read to me. Words have a power we can't comprehend, striking quick and to the heart or lying dormant, waiting for just the right moment to seize us and change our lives forever.

Lucky is the child, and the adult, who finds the worlds within themselves. And within a good book.

PATRICK CANEDAY thinks he's a very small mouse on a very big adventure. He may be reached on Facebook, at www.patrickcaneday.com and patrickcaneday@gmail.com.
 
 

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