In the seventh grade, I began a six year college preparatory school, the elite school in the city and accessible only via an entrance exam. Ninety-nine percent of its graduates went on to college, many to Ivy League schools. But only one in three graduated.
I felt pretty confident. I had a good education to date and all the skills to succeed. But I had never read for pleasure.
The kids in this school were very competitive—what we used to call “grade grubbers”—even at such a young age. On the first day of English class, our teacher, Dr. McNamara, hit us with a stern warning. We were all failing and would get an ‘F.’ No studying would help, no exam would change it. There was only one way we could improve our grade.
Dr. McNamara was a bear of a man, with a big round face, jowls and the almost expected wire-rimmed bifocals. He glared at us through them and drew us all to the edge of our seat.
“For each book you read,” he said, “I will raise you one grade. If you read five books in the term, you will get an ‘A.’”
Our marking term was one month long. I suspect none of us read that much in six months. But then, like a magic salve to the wound, he handed out “the list.” The list consisted of about three hundred wonderful books, and not the stodgy classics, all of them books to delight the young.
That year I read the complete works of Sherlock Holmes and wanted to be a detective. I read The Saga of Andy Burnett and dreamed of running off to become a mountain man. I read The Lord of the Rings and pictured myself as the ranger, Strider, and someday, if I was worthy, king of the men of Numenor.
I was twelve years old.
Of course I never become any of these, but I’d been given the lifelong gift of reading and have never stopped.
The most important thing I learned? Through books, I could experience other worlds, be in the minds of other people. And though fiction may never translate directly to reality, I learned something even more important—the power of possibility