When I was two, I lived in Cape-town and I loved a book. It was Peep-o and it couldn’t leave me. You told me once that every time you had to return it to the library, I would sit at our apartment window wailing as you and the book walked away. ‘Don’t go Peep-o!!!!’
That poor dog-eared book, made many trips back and forth between the library and home, before you; in an act of rebellion, stole the book, paid the fine to replace it, and gave it to me.
Peep-o was mine.
And so began my love of words, and my jealous coveting of all my books. I don’t loan them out to friends, and I have a problem with returning library books. I get lots of fines. All the time. I’m not allowed back.
They are mine.
In our house there were always books. Huge bursting bookcases, opened books draped over arm chairs and books waiting on the dining table to be read. I would spend days burrowing into book piles, selecting one and settling in a tree to read it.
At home, we read together as often as we did alone. At night you recited poetry and it covered us in our beds, like blankets. They were often hauntingly sad, and somehow that sadness was comforting. I think it was then that I learnt to value all emotions. That they are all poetry, something to be held, examined and protected.
You prescribed books, like medicine. Books for heartache, books for the rebelious teen, and when our family broke down, books to escape to.
We were allowed free reign on what books we chose next to read. No book was too ‘stupid, too serious, too raunchy, too trashy or too hard’. We would read what we wanted without shame. What a gift to give girls, who in society are so often taught that following their desire, their curiosity is dangerous or shameful.
I didn’t realise it then, but looking back, you made available stories with strong complex women. Women who lead, wept, were fierce and fragile. Women that I could be. They taught me to speak up, to rebel, to be, to dream and to act.
And these fierce women, all the characters I read with, wept for and journeyed with. They reside today in my rebellious heart, in my cells. They whisper and they urgently shout ‘Go on dear one, go on’.
When I was 6 years old, I collected my courage and walked the length of my classroom to ask my teacher if I could have harder books to read. The three-word-readers we were given in class just weren’t cutting it for me. I remember explaining with excitement all the books I had read ALL on my own at home: Alice in Wonderland, CS Lewis, Noel Streatfeild and The Secret Garden.
She stood, going red and then explaining to me that while I was clearly clever, I had to read at the same pace as everyone, that she had to be able to report that I had read all the books and what cheek did I have to think that I am smarter than the others?
The humiliation burned me.
I sat in that classroom for the rest of the day, despairing, imagining a huge unending stack of books with three-word-sentences. Three-word-sentence-books I felt I would be reading for the rest of my life. They stood before me going up, up, up. Like a vast tower
Later when I came to you, in tears and told you. You said ‘argh stuff that goddamn woman, stuff her. I will sign your homework readers to say you have read them, you just keep reading what you want to’. And so you handed me back my forbidden book (I think it might have been Ursula Le Guin – The Earth Sea Trilogy) and sent me off to read. The relief was palpable. I could read. I could keep learning.
That message ‘you don’t have to learn what you are told to learn – just keep learning’. I’ve kept it with me my whole life. Its the reason I am a teacher.
Thank you for giving me permission to learn what I want to learn. To be curious and to trust my curiosity. Trusting that it could, and would, lead me great places.
In grade four I walked home with a poem burning in my heart. A poem I wanted to write. A poem prompted by my English teacher. I wanted to write it. I wanted it to be.
You sat with me many afternoons that week. We would catch words, draw them down, play with them in our mouths as we considered where they fit, considered them in light and in dark and finally we plucked the right one. Placing it precisely, joyfully into place. The other words, the unused ones, would float away, dancing in the dust light, ready for another poem, another day.
I traced my fingers over my untidy scrawling on the page. Full of wonder that I had brought a piece of writing into being.
I didn’t win that competition – my best friend did (she was a future Harvard scholar even in grade four). I didn’t care. I loved that poem, fiercely, proudly, like I would my own child.
Thank you for teaching me how to forage, how to gather, how to call my words together and into being.
In High-School, when I, the shyest person I knew, was chosen by the wonderful Mr Brown to be part of the debating team; you listened to every tedious practice speech. You taught me how to pause on certain words, taught me a code of underlined words, telling me when to emphasise, when to breathe. You gathered quotes that would punctuate my ideas and give me new avenues to explore.
And now, when I place my two feet firmly and with confidence on the ground, face an audience or a class of students, I send a silent thanks to you and Mr Brown. What a gift to be given. The art of making oneself heard.
I was a restless student. An athlete, I just couldn’t keep my body still in class. My legs wanting to move, meant I couldn’t keep my attention on the sums, the awful geometry and the equations. But your early schooling in literature, all the hours you spent with me talking about metaphors, and characters and grammar, it gave me an edge. I knew how to write and I knew how to suck the meaning from a piece of writing and re-formulate it, to express myself. School bored me, but I didn’t care, I had the gift of learning what I wanted.
And for a mind like mine that is always running, running running. Running with ideas, more ideas, plots, schemes, worry, rage and ambition. Those books you introduced to me are a quiet pool, a break, a place to be, a place that soothes my restless spirit.
In VCE, in Australia, the art room at my school caught fire, and three weeks before final exams, I lost my entire portfolio. I was S H A T T E R E D. All I wanted to do was sleep and cry over my loss.
You dragged me out of the house. Fiercely, grabbed paint off the shelves in art stores, found a canvas and some brushes. You sat me down with the canvas in front of me. You said ‘you are angry, you are hurt, you are broken’ ‘Go on, PAINT’.
And so I did.
So today on Mothers day, I want to say thank you. Thank you for my words, thank you for believing in me and trusting me, thank you for giving my restless spirit a home in books, and thank you for giving me a voice that knows its strength.