Thursday, December 2, 2010

An Urban Tale [Now Somewhat Dated]

My first job out of college was as an English teacher in an inner-city high school.  My students were not anywhere near wealthy, but they were driven to excel, mainly because our school overlooked a valley of steel mills that cut through the middle of Cleveland, separating the east side from the west.  They would often joke about how the effulgence of American manufacturing tainted every breath one took; even turning the laundry hanging in back yards a marvelous shade of orange.  While their parents had found employment and stability in those mills and factories, my students planned for something more white-collar than orange-collar.  There wasn't one who didn't know that education was the only way out. 

One of my students, Benny, lived in my neighborhood and stopped by my cinder-block apartment building one Saturday to turn in a late term paper.  He was amazed that my living room had books in it.  His didn't, he informed me, although they did have a color TV.  This he noted while looking at my rather sad 19-inch black and white portable.  We spoke for awhile about books and stories, fiction and non-fiction.  He told me he always wanted to read The Count of Monte Cristo, as he had seen a version of it on television and, as he said, "Man, that's just got to be something in words."  I let him borrow my Penguin paperback copy.

Later in the week, he gave the book back to me at the end of class.  I asked him if he had read it; he said "no".  I asked if he wanted to keep it longer; he said "no".  I'm sure I gave him a puzzled look.  His response I'll never forget.

"I ain't never owned no book before.  Seems like a book this good I'm gonna want to read more than once.  Should have my own copy, I'm figurin'.  See, Mr. Clements?"  He took a Penguin paperback, similar to mine, but far more used and worn, from his back pocket.  "Got it at the First Baptist thrift shop for five cents.  What'd you pay for yours?  Ninety-five cents?  You'll never be a businessman, Mr. Clements."  We laughed about it and the day, and days, went on.

By the time he graduated from high school, Benny owned over forty books; books of all sorts, from things that interested him to things he knew nothing about.  He would go to college and become a businessman, owning a commercial carpet cleaning company that bears his name.  His daughter is in medical school. 

I thought of this while reading the story linked to below.  I know that times are changing [I mean, I own a Kindle, for heaven's sake], and I know that it was Benny's drive and ambition that got him out of the orange-tinted valley.  But, I know that a battered, five-cent paperback of a 19th century French adventure story also had something to do with it.  I wonder if the same thing can happen through a school library with no books, or when stories from long ago and far away can no longer be carried in a back pocket.  Electronic impulses traveling through the ether seem almost too liminal for the wealth of human wisdom.

High School Library Ousts Books, Re-Opens as Coffee Shop