Librarians are gatekeepers of books and words. My fourth-grade teacher, Mr. Moran, played a similar role.
Every school day after recess, Mr. Moran walked on our desks. He stepped from desktop to desktop, reading aloud from A Wrinkle In Time or Little Women or James and the Giant Peach. After fifteen minutes or so, he would pause on a desk in the middle of the room, stop reading mid-sentence, gaze out the window, and close the book. We’d beg him to keep reading — to at least finish the sentence — but he liked to leave us hanging in suspense. We liked it too, because it gave us something to look forward to.
The year was 1984, when home recording devices were all the rage. Unfortunately for me and the other shy kids, Mr. Moran was a huge fan of incorporating audio-visual equipment into class assignments.
In the first such assignment, we each were to dress as a president, and report on his life. In front of the whole class, and a video camera.
I was terrified.
We drew names out of a hat. My president: Grover Cleveland.
On taping day, Mr. Moran asked for volunteers. Hands went up, and one by one every student (except me) dragged their props to the table in front of the chalkboard, looked into the camera, and gave their report.
Finally Mr. Moran scanned the room, saying, “Did we get everybody? Is there anyone who hasn’t gone yet?”
I sank deeper into my chair and picked a hangnail. I was going to get away with it! Then I peered up and saw Mr. Moran cross-checking his list.
“Uh, President Cleveland?” he said. “Looks like you’re the last one.”
I sighed, pulled on my father’s old sports coat, stuffed a pillow up my shirt, and took my seat at the table.
It was the first time in my life I spoke into a microphone. It was horrible. Horrible. My face went completely red, my voice quavered, my hands trembled. I felt like crying. I almost did.
When I finished, Mr. Moran smiled and said, “You have a golden voice.”
It wasn’t true, of course. But I loved him for saying it.
In another assignment, we wrote five-paragraph short stories. And of course, one by one we read our completed stories into a microphone while the class — and Mr. Moran’s enormous video camera — looked on.
Now, I’d written poems and stories, but I’d never shared them with anyone. So this assignment was even more horrifying than the first.
In my story, a loquacious palomino named Goldie swept the narrator from a haunted attic to a deserted beach. Then, in a heartbreaking turn of events, Goldie sank into quicksand and was never seen (or heard from) again.
I read without taking my eyes off the paper. My voice was even shakier than when I impersonated Grover Cleveland. But I made it through.
After I said “the end,” Mr. Moran turned off the camera and nodded.
“Alicia, maybe you should try writing when you—” He shrugged. I think he was going to say, when you grow up. But instead he said, “Well, maybe you should just try writing.”
I’m sure my Goldie story didn’t indicate literary promise. Rather, Mr. Moran simply realized I was a desperately shy student with weak math skills and a vivid imagination, and maybe if he coaxed me in the right direction, I’d become braver.
And thanks to his coaxing, I found the confidence to attempt Watership Down that same year, even though a previous teacher categorized me an average reader. (It took me a year to read it, but hey, I did it.) Thanks to Mr. Moran, I continued to write — first as escape, and eventually, as communication.
Also because of him, I can recite “Stopping by woods on a snowy evening” by Robert Frost beginning to end, from memory (another video-recorded assignment).
Was there someone like that — someone who made stories and poems not only magical and accessible, but necessary — in your past? Perhaps a librarian or a teacher, a relative or some other adult, who brought words to life, and wielded much more influence over younger you than she or he might have realized?