The smell of books

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Sean Dietrich

By Sean Dietrich

I was not a good grade-school student. It was hard for me to follow a classroom lesson. I was always distracted and lost in my own world. My teachers didn’t “get” me.

Thus, whenever I was called upon to answer serious questions in class, I would suffer a minor brain seizure then announce clearly that I had to go pee.

“Slow” was the word they used on kids like us. If you weren’t sharp, you were slow. Which meant you were, more or less, as bright as a box of mud. I once overheard a teacher tell another teacher I was slow. She meant no harm. Which only made it worse.

But it didn’t matter. Once this word is attached to you, it’s all over. After this, all you want in life is to feel un-stupid. You would do almost anything to prove that you are un-stupid.

Don’t misunderstand me, all my teachers weren’t like this. One of my school teachers actually understood me. She came up with an idea to help me learn.

I came to school one morning and my desk was outfitted with crayons and paper.

She said, “I want you to color pictures during my lesson. I don’t want you looking at me, and I DEFINITELY don’t want you paying attention.”

This felt like a trick. But I followed her advice. And when her lesson finished, she called me to her desk to ask questions related to her lesson.

To my own amazement I COULD ANSWER HER QUESTION. I had somehow paid attention to every word she said while coloring.

It was a miracle. I was pronounced to be un-stupid. I made perfect grades all year.

But it was short lived. By fifth grade, I was back to being a mouth breather again. I had a teacher who didn’t like me. She ended up putting me in the remedial class with a few other kids. We were all believed to be about as quick-witted as advanced fungal life.

I ended up failing fifth grade altogether. And this just wrecked my confidence. Because now I had proof that I was slow.

What was wrong with me? I wanted to be smart. I wanted my teachers to like me. I wanted to make good grades. But it just never happened.

I’m not feeling sorry for myself, I just want you to know the context before I finish my story. That way you’ll understand why I dropped out in the seventh grade after my father died.

Shortly after my father’s death, I decided I was finished with school. Looking back, I don’t think I could even tell you why I did it. Stupidity, I guess.

And I would have kept ruining my own life if it hadn’t been for one fateful summer afternoon. I was 14. I walked into a small building that was full of books. Glorious books. I have always been intoxicated by the smell of books.

It was a quiet room, with creaky floors and an elderly lady seated behind a library desk surrounded by books.

“Help you?” she said.

“Just looking around.”

“For anything in particular?”

I shrugged.

She removed her reading glasses and smiled. This woman knew my kind. She knew kids like me. The species of child who drops out of school was not unfamiliar to her. She probably even knew my shoe size.

The old woman led me to the fiction shelves. And it was here where I was reborn. Without asking, she removed novel by novel and gave them to me. She said things like, “You’ll like this one.” And, “The plot starts off slow, but it’s worth it.”

I arrived at the counter with a mountain of reading material. I didn’t even know what I was supposed to do next. Was I supposed to pay this woman?

“No, honey,” she said. “You take the books home.”

Home? What? They were just going to GIVE ME THESE BOOKS? Were these people nutty? What a deal.

So I filled out an information packet and the woman handed me a white card with my signature on it. My library card was the first formal ID I ever had. I still have it.

Next, she stamped the backs of each book and handed them to me. She said, “I’ll see YOU in a few weeks.”

Wink.

I took the books home. I read each one. Front to back. I returned them to the library, and the woman had another pile waiting for me. So I read those, too.

It was during one such visit that this woman, busy stamping my books, said, “You know, you must be pretty smart, reading all these books.”

I felt my face turn strawberry red. Because she was wrong about me. Everyone knew that. Even so, it felt good to hear nice words.

In fact, I still replay those words whenever I doubt myself. And I replayed those words all throughout college as an adult. I replay them because it’s amazing what simple words can do for a person.

Especially when those words are said by a librarian.

Anyway, yesterday a brown package arrived in my mailbox. I went to check the mail. It was from my publisher. I sliced open the cardboard and inside was a new novel. Not yet released. With my name on it.

I held it in my hands just to feel the weight of it. I smelled the new paper. I ran my finger along the letters. No matter how old I get, I will always be the same kid inside.

My lower lip started getting shaky. My nose clogged.

Because I’ve never felt so un-stupid in all my life.

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