It was the first day of middle school for me in yet another new school. Another first day that found me, as was now routine, being brand new and knowing not a single person. I never got used to it but by that point, I had perfected the art of not letting my painful shyness and anxiety show. I took my seat near the back of the room and tried to look like I was busy doing something so that my awkwardness and discomfort at being surrounded by everyone else reconnecting with their friends after summer break wasn’t too obvious.
A girl near me who was the only other person not chatting and laughing caught my eye and asked me if I had a pen to borrow. the teacher walked in and the room grew quiet just as I handed her a pen and said a quiet “here you go”.
“There is no talking in homeroom. Miss, you will be joining me after school today for detention.” Ms. Sage spoke clearly and loudly over the shuffling of bags.
Welcome to room 7-211.
I was mortified and I wanted to crawl under the desk. All eyes were now on me and I could feel the tears hot and stinging in my eyes. I had never had a detention before. I was a good girl. I never did anything wrong or got in trouble. Assignments were never late. My marks were always perfect. I never drew attention to myself. In one sentence, Ms. Sage had impacted me in a way that I couldn’t make sense of. With her words, she showed me that she judged me based on a split second and that glimpse of my actions was not in line with who I was. I wanted to argue and explain but that would have just brought more attention. So I sat and nodded, trying to make myself as small as I could. As invisible as I could.
That moment was a stark contradiction to how that year ended for Ms. Sage and I; and to this day, she most likely has no idea how much she affected me. For the good.
Room 7-211, named for Grade 7, Room #211, was my homeroom and the way our school functioned was that every morning, all students went to their homerooms for first period, which was 20 minutes. It was intended to be a time for students to be briefed on daily notices from the office, schedule updates and to get ready for the day essentially. But that was a blip for Ms. Sage. She would run through the sheet of information that was on her desk from the office in record speed and then we were to do silent reading for the remainder of the period.
Her room had two racks of paperbacks in the back. The kind of racks that were made of metal and that spun on a single tall rod. They were filled with books of all genres and lengths. No graphic novels (this was the eighties and it would be years before those came along), no comic books or romance novels. They were filled with novels that she brought in and changed out regularly. To this day, I have no idea where she got them all. Some had stamps from city libraries with “discard” written across and all were clearly used. Maybe she had bought them, maybe they were donated, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that from that first day when I didn’t have a book to read, I found a treasure trove of books I had never seen before.
I was already an avid reader. I lived in my books. I loved being lost in made up worlds and stories that were anything but my life and the things that I didn’t want to exist in, but did. Since I was a little girl and had learned to read, it had been part of my day so I welcomed the chance to have a safe, familiar thing to do each morning in a place where I was definitely not comfortable.
That year was magical for 20 minutes every day. Those moments lost in new found adventures were my solace and it didn’t take long for her to notice. By Christmas, Ms. Sage had started to walk by my desk every couple of weeks with a book she had pulled from the racks and she would place it next to me as I sat reading. She never said a word as she did this; she would simply put it down, pat it and nod at me. That would be my next book.
Bradbury, Tolkien, Asimov, Bronte, Fowles, Poe, Steinbeck. Frank. I devoured them, fell in love with them. I was mesmerized by the nuances of styles and imagery, by the different ways that each author crafted and danced their words to fill the pages. Her picks for me never failed to incite something inside of me that I hadn’t felt before. One day she dropped a book of poetry on my desk and yet another world opened up. We rarely spoke one on one and I never asked why she would pick books for me.
The last homeroom of grade seven and as we were getting ready to leave she spoke, her voice cutting through the chatter of the students. She looked at me and said “Please come see me before you leave.” I groaned inside. All eyes were on me and there was laughter and the singsong of “you’re in trouble” from a few around me. I gathered my bag and trudged to her desk. She was writing something and without looking up she said, “Go to the racks and you can pick out three books to keep.”. She never looked up at me but she smiled.
To this day, two of those three books still sit on my bookshelf. The third was lost somewhere along my years and when I finally settled where I live now, it was the first book I sought out and bought at a little used book store in town. It’s not the original but it still holds a place in my heart – and shelf – along with those other two. Everytime I look at them or read them, I think of her and wonder if she has any idea how she shaped who I am today with those few moments. Those books she placed on my desk broadened my views and sparked fires that I hadn’t known existed within me.
Thank you Ms. Sage.