Think back for a moment to the kind of desk you had in elementary school - say second or third grade. Mine was square, with a grey metal tub-like bottom and a faux-wood laminate top that lifted up. I often used the top of my head to prop that lid open while I rummaged around inside the general clutter that collected there: folders and looseleaf notebooks and chewed up pencils and erasers and mimeographed work sheets.
My textbooks of course. But more importantly, My Book. The one I was reading for pleasure. The one I considered the Really Important Book.
I was led to recall my schoolroom desk the other day during a lunch conversation with some members of my handbell group. One of my friends recalled that her mother always requested the classroom teacher pile on the work, because “as soon as I got my work done I started talking to everybody,” she said with a chuckle, since she still loves to talk to people.
“I was the same way,” another friend said. “My teacher just kept giving me more and more work to do because I’d always do it and it would keep me quiet."
It was then that I remembered The Book in My Desk. “You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I always kept a book in my desk,” I said, "and would hurry up and finish every assignment so I could get back to reading."
No one was surprised. These people know me quite well.
Seriously, The Book in My Desk saved me, and was probably one of the reasons I enjoyed school as much as I did. In the 1960’s there were at least 30 kids in every one of my classrooms. My teachers had no aides or helpers, so they were left to manage the varying needs and behaviors of each of their students. I was studious and quiet, and when my work was finished they were only too happy to leave me to my own devices. I learned to work quickly, gingerly lift the lid of my desk (not too high so as not to attract attention) and slowly withdraw the latest Trixie Belden mystery, or the next installment of the Betsy-Tacy series. I could slide down in my chair until my tailbone rested on the curve of the back, prop the book open on my fairly ample tummy, and lose myself inside the story until it was time for the next lesson.
I don’t know how teachers handle free time in the classroom these days. Maybe Free Time doesn’t even exist. I suppose it’s true, many children are tempted to get into trouble if they don’t have clear tasks in front of them. So perhaps now their school day is scheduled from start to finish with assignments and activities and checklists of things to accomplish.
I feel lucky to have had that free time - it’s where I learned that losing myself in the pages of a book was the best way to pass the time and allow my imagination to take flight. It’s also where I learned that books could transport me out of situations that were uncomfortable and into a different world altogether. It’s where reading became firmly entrenched as my favorite coping mechanism. Nothing about that has changed in the past 50 years.
I’m thankful for those early elementary school teachers who saw how much reading meant to me, and let me indulge my passion for it throughout the school day.
And I’m even more thankful for the ever-present Book in My Desk.