“Come with me, dear,” Mrs. Ridgley whispers in my ear during my favorite class, Literature.
I lean away from her. “D-Did I do something wrong?”
“No, honey. Come along now.” She gives a gentle squeeze to my left shoulder.
Plucked from my sixth grade herd, I count forty-two painted cinder blocks in perfect silence as we walk down the hall. What could this be about? I review the past week in my head and come up short.
She ushers me into her small office where fluorescent lights buzz. Lying in the middle of a round table is a manila folder. I sit on a cold plastic chair. Mrs. Ridgley, stiff and buttoned up, hands me a single, printed sheet.
“Christina, we’re going to talk about a simple story today.”
Of course we’re going to read a story. She’s the school reading assistant. But instead of jumping right in, I pull the sheet to my face and block her from view. I freeze. The words morph into a meaningless arrangement of letters on the page. Knots of fear grow in my stomach.
I swallow hard. “Can I read it to myself?”
“Well, I don’t see why not. Take your time.”
I read the story, but absorb nothing. I’m too focused on the questions in my head: Why am I alone in here? What does she expect me to say? What if I get it wrong?
Finally, I lay the sheet on the table and look up.
Mrs. Ridgley adjusts her bifocals and forces a smile. “This is not a test; I just want to talk with you about the story.”
My mind stalls in a thicket of letters.
“What would be an appropriate title for this story?” Mrs. Ridgley peers down the bridge of her nose.
I study my hands, fused in my lap.
She tries again. “Do you think you can explain the main idea of the story?”
Main idea? No. But I could describe the sweat on the back of my knees, or how badly I want to run out of this room.
She shifts in her seat and smiles. “Honey, who is the main character?”
Anguish swells, and the room tilts. The impossible weight of my shoulders pushes my focus to the piling carpet below. I shrug in defeat.
With the exception of the reading test in front of me, years of plots and stories and characters exist in my brain as textured landscapes, lush with nuance and detail. But up to this point, my reading comprehension has only been tested on exams. In Mrs. Ridgley’s icy shadow, however, I stammer and paw for answers that won’t come.
“It’s okay, Christina. Let me take you back to class.”
She scrawls some quick notes on her tablet, and rises from her chair. I follow her, terrified. The belief that I am incapable slays what little self-confidence I have. What will Mommy and Daddy say?
The afternoon of the reading test, a sealed envelope with school letterhead addressed to “The Parents of Christina Speed” lies heavy in my binder. These envelopes never contain good news. Strict instructions to make sure Mom or Dad get this are pressed into my shoulder by my homeroom teacher’s grip in the dismissal line.
Silence prevails during our rides home from school and today is no exception. I don’t mention the letter. Instead, I fumble it to my mother’s hands when we arrive and stalk to my bedroom, shutting the door behind me. I crumple to the floor.
A moment later, footsteps down the hall. She pauses at the door before attempting the handle.
I quickly rise and open the door. “Yes?”
“The letter…did you know what was inside?”
“Kind of…well…no.” I bounce the toe of my brown school shoe off of the heel of the other.
“Christina, it was a letter from Mrs. Ridgley.” My mother’s face reveals disdain. “Did you have to take some reading test?”
“It says here you’ll be moved to the B reading group. Did you not do well on the test?” Head down, her focus remains on the letter.
I shrink two sizes. My mother is keen to attach weight to achievement of any kind. Or lack thereof.
The air between us is quicksand. “Ummm. I dunno. I guess not. It was scary in that office and…”
“Well, probably better then.” She turns and walks back downstairs. The sound of chopping vegetables echoes in the hallway. I review the reading test over and over in my head: I’m not sure why I froze, why I couldn’t make sense of the most basic elements of the story for Mrs. Ridgley.
Though flustered and confused over the reading test, I maintain good grades through middle and high school and require little need for oversight. I continue to be the good girl. But I am lonely, craving the relationships that other girls my age seem to develop easily. Friendships elude me. Living thirty minutes from town, no girls from school bother to make the trip for play dates.
Despite this, I manage to make one close friend in seventh grade. We spend every Friday night for months at her Mom’s house playing board games and gorging on monkey bread. Midway through eighth grade, she ditches me for someone else. “You’re just not that cool, Christina. You’re kind of — well — a bookworm.” I retreat to the crowd that knows me best: my books.
When I am reading, I don’t worry about how I appear, what I’m wearing, or what I should say. I’m allowed to remain silent while the characters in my books undertake the risky job of living real life.
In eleventh grade Literature class, I sit in the front row and absorb Mrs. Philips’s lectures, coiling her words into my own. I relish her teaching — her passion for the splendor of the literary experience. She explains literary devices and how authors use them to intensify the story. She shares how, when used properly, metaphor can be a powerful tool affecting how we experience text. She explains how books can illuminate one’s understanding of personal, cultural, and global conditions. She celebrates the very things I love most about books.
This morning, I am hunched over a pop quiz. I am flustered, feeling unprepared. The fear of an imperfect answer cripples me. The poem — “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by Keats — morphs into a shapeless mass of black and white on the page. My problem isn’t that I do not know the answer. It’s that I can’t lure its clarity out of my mind and onto the quiz paper.
Tears pool in my eyes. I raise my hand.
Mrs. Philips’s hand is warm on my shoulder. “Yes, Christina?”
My attempt to squelch a familiar lump in the back of my throat produces a rasp in my voice. “I don’t know.”
“Oh, Christina, but you do. Take a few deep breaths, honey. Read the lines again and think about what I am asking you.” She rests her hand on mine. “What is the tone of the piece?”
My breathing quickens and I nestle my face into the crook of my elbow, releasing the tears.
Mrs. Philips slides into an empty chair beside me. I hear the girl sitting next to me inch her chair closer to her desk. Turning my head on my arm, I protect my wet face and stare into her warm blue eyes. She lowers her voice to a whisper. “Christina, look at lines twenty-one through twenty-five. Consider the words in those lines: happy, unwearied, piping, love. How do these words sound to you? What do they make you think of?” She reaches for the Kleenex box and hands me a tissue.
“I still don’t know.” But with my eyes locked on hers, it’s as if a magical rope pulls the words from me. “Okay. Well, maybe.” I pause with a deep breath. “Joy?”
“Yes, Christina, you’re getting to it. Now, take that thought and develop it into an answer. I know you can do it.” She pats my hand and returns to her desk.
I imagine lassoing her back to my side, to keep her tenderness beside me. Her belief in me provides a nudge of self-confidence. Before it evaporates, I scrawl down my answers.
Later that week, Mrs. Philips calls me into her office. “Christina, I want to talk with you about the quiz.”
“Christina, you got a B minus on the quiz! You answered the questions well, more thoroughly than before. Can we talk for a minute?”
“Sure,” I say, loosening with the realization she’s not disappointed in me.
“What are you reading outside of school?”
“Well, I love to be in my bed, books all around me. I have a great set up — my own room, a lock on the door, and a red clip light to light the pages in my hands. I loved Karana in Island of the Blue Dolphins and how she manages to be so independent — a leader — in such a harsh, scary place. Oh! and I love Nancy Drew. Solving mysteries side-by-side with her, I feel powerful, grown-up.”
I glance up at Mrs. Philips, who smiles and nods her head.
“I can’t count the times I’ve read The Arabian Nights, the poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Journey to the Center of the Earth. I find my feelings inside of these stories, and it’s easier to do that than talk them out.”
I fall silent, worried what Mrs. Philips will say about all this.
“Christina,” she says quietly, “I’d like you to start telling me about what you are reading. It doesn’t have to be every day or every week. Will you stop in to see me?”
A wiggly feeling stirs in my stomach. This exchange is weird, but I sense it is a good weird — a hand across the water. “Sure. Sure, I can do that.”
I come to her office several times a month. What did I learn from that story? Why was she my favorite character? Was I enjoying it? Inevitably, the exchange about books intermingles with anecdotes of my family life, my boyfriend, how I do not have many friends. Mrs. Philips creates a safe space for this articulation, for me to develop a literary vocabulary alongside an emotional one. A new sense of awareness rises to the surface. I acknowledge that I anchor whole sections of my emotional life to characters and plots. I admit that I might spend too much time alone. I consider: can books offer too much connection and comfort?
After months of our meetings, I feel a renewed affection for my books. But I also feel something else: a budding desire to join the outside world. I see myself less as a shadow, and more as an active, living person with a voice. I open myself to my parents and sisters. I raise my hand to share my perspective. I make a few good friends. Classmates ask for help on research projects and editing. I even volunteer to chair two social events. And my senior year, I am elected class president.
I emerge from between the pages and undertake the risky job living my real life.
My sons and I sit in one huge heap, legs and arms tucked in, finding warmth and comfort. Thumbs planted in their mouths, I open The Runaway Dinner by Allan Ahlberg. Between giggles, pointing fingers, questions and predictions, the three of us communicate our feelings: we connect ourselves to the story and each other, exercising our voices — literary and emotional.
“Why do you like books so much?” I ask my seven-year-old as he hoists his leg over the top bunk railing.
He pauses, putting his index finger to his chin. “Mom, stories take me anywhere I want to go. They are exciting! Plus, I can learn things.”
I tousle his soft brown hair. “I couldn’t agree more!”
There is a marked consequence in falling into a life between pages alone — I know this firsthand. Thinking back on that manila folder makes my nostrils flare, and anxiety bubble. I can’t go back in time and pat my twelve-year-old back, and calmly say “You know how to read, Christina, believe in yourself.” Instead, I can show my sons that books are not a place to hide, but a place in which to shape an understanding of the world. And that communicating our experiences with books can bring us closer together.
Just as Mrs. Philips taught me.