As the youngest of nine children, I keenly felt the pain of illiteracy at four years of age. Seeing all the people I admired most sitting down and reading by themselves was tantalizing to me.
Not wanting to feel left out, I frequently spent time combing the family bookcase. Unfortunately, except for a few tattered Little Golden Books, the only books on the shelf were grown-up books without pictures–with one notable exception.
How well I recall the glossy illustrated hard cover of The Legend of Zorro! In brilliant hues the dashing Zorro–his masked face set with resolve and his black cape swirling about his scarlet shirt–sat atop a rearing black stallion against a Southwestern landscape. Before entering first grade, when I knew all the sounds of the letters and knew how to sound words out, I sat down with Zorro in my lap and tried to read. To my dismay, I couldn’t get past the first word: “the.”
After first grade when I had really learned to read, I tackled Zorro again. I could now pick out a word here or there, but not much more than that. After second grade, I thought I’d surely be able to find out about Zorro, but I still couldn’t read it. Ditto after third grade.
By that time, a few more children’s books had found their way into our home. By saving enough box tops, my mom was able to subscribe to a series of hardcover children’s anthologies that came in the mail once a month. The books had poems, short stories, fairy tales, and an excerpt from a longer children’s book. I eagerly devoured those volumes the day they arrived and couldn’t wait for the next one. They only served to further whet my appetite for books, not satisfy it.
Every so often the school library would discard books. My sister and I kept a watchful eye for those “discard” piles and grabbed any books we could. One of them that I snatched up was Silver Pennies, a handbook-sized children’s poetry anthology. Silver Pennies was in sorry shape when it found its way into our home. A chunk was missing from its hard cover and multiple pages had been scribbled on by unruly children. The little volume was already 40 years old when I adopted it. But I read and cherished it, committing many of its poems to memory. The enchanting words of Vachel Lindsay, Walter de la Mare, Sara Teasdale, and William Butler Yeats became second nature to me.
When I was thirteen, both my parents became quite ill, and our family had to move out of our home. There was no time to sort through possessions to decide what was worth taking. When I arrived on the scene, the family bookshelf with all of its contents had already been deposited on the back of a pickup truck destined for the dump. The shiny volume of Zorro was buried somewhere in that load–beyond my ability to rescue it.
But Silver Pennies miraculously survived. I must have had it among my personal belongings. It’s the only book from our original library that was not destroyed. I keep it in a Ziploc bag in my bedroom to prevent further deterioration; it’s pushing 90 now. But it doesn’t remain in my room. A couple of times each semester it goes to class with me. I want my students to feel the awe this little book gave me, so I show it to them when I’m teaching one of my favorite poems from that volume or when I’m sharing with them how important books are to me.
When I decided to home school my children, I also decided to invest in an excellent home library. The tragic “legend of Zorro” was not going to be repeated in my home! My kids have had plenty of books appropriate for their ages and reading levels. They all became excellent readers and probably have their own stories to tell about books that are especially meaningful to them.
As possessions go, books are in a class by themselves. They are more than things. They are companions, mentors, confidants, and friends. I like being surrounded by them.