Memory Is Fickle

Today, as she handed me a copy of my novel to sign, a friend asked me how long this has been my dream.

(Can I just take a moment to bask in that last sentence? A friend asked me to sign a copy of MY NOVEL. An actual, real book that I WROTE that SHE BOUGHT on Amazon. I know she bought it because she brought it over IN THE AMAZON BOX it had arrived in. It’s a wonder I didn’t pass out right there in public.)

Okay, where were we? Oh yes, dreams coming true.

This has been my dream since I was a little girl, I said, since about first or second grade. My teacher recommended the book A Wrinkle in Time to me, and I bought it with the money I saved from my allowance. And even though I had read books before — of course I had — that was the first time I made the connection between the idea that someone wrote these words and then it became a book and then I bought the book and read it, and all of that was part of a chain of commerce the same way my dad went to work in the morning, and maybe someday I could write a book that somebody else bought.

Here I was with my friend holding the book that I wrote, that she had bought.

Dream. Come. True.

That’s a neat story, isn’t it?

And yet, it’s not entirely true.

I am confident of these memories, in the way you are certain of color of your own eyes or of your mother’s name. I remember the teacher who recommended the book to me: Miss Chandler, whom I adored, and who was my teacher for both first and second grade. I distinctly remember purchasing the book at the bookstore we used to visit on our annual trip to New Hampshire. I also remember saving up the quarters that made up my allowance (this was the 1970s, kids) and paying for the book myself.

But when I look at the book, which I still own, it turns out that my memory isn’t as perfect as I think.

"A Wrinkle In Time" by Madeleine L'Engle

My first copy; mid-1970s. $1.25 was paid in quarters from my allowance

It says right there on the cover that it cost $1.25, so that detail is right, but when I open the book — very carefully, because as you can see, it is completely falling apart — the copyright information shows me that I’ve made myself a bit precocious in my memory. This version of the book came out in 1976.

I wasn’t in first grade in 1976, or even in second grade. The summer of 1976 wasn’t the summer between my second and third grade years. The summer of 1976, I would have just finished fourth grade.

This actually makes a lot more sense.

A Wrinkle in Time is a sophisticated book. Technically a YA novel (then in the “teen” section — if your library even had such a thing), it is still dazzling and confounding to me as an adult. The idea that I would have read it, or that a teacher would have recommended it to me, as a six or seven year old, is pretty self-aggrandizing. But it also arises out of the deep affection I had for Miss Chandler. She was the quintessential early education teacher. I adored her.

But I also had an incredibly cool fourth grade teacher, Ms. Stein. That right there should tell you something:  Ms. Stein. Not Miss or Mrs. To this day, I have no idea whether she was married or not. Fist bump, Ms. Stein. You rocked our little fourth grade world with the idea that a woman could decline to answer that question, right there in her name. That she could wear her hair big and frizzy and natural with bell bottom jeans while our moms were pretty much wearing house dresses and teased perms and polyester.

Ms. Stein also figured out pretty quickly that there was nothing in the fourth grade reading curriculum that could satisfy me. So she let me work at my own pace — which meant I finished the required material by the end of September — after which she sent me to the library during reading time. I could read ANYTHING I WANTED.

The people who design today’s micro-managed curricula, who think that teachers need to be judged by test scores and outcomes, have no idea what they are doing.

Now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that was the year I first picked up Animal Farm thinking it was going to be a fun Charlotte’s Web-type story. Oops.

I guess after she saw me with George Orwell, Ms. Stein figured I could handle Madeleine L’Engle.

So maybe I wasn’t a six year old child prodigy. And maybe it wasn’t the teacher I thought it was who recommended the book, but it was still a great teacher, which is kind of the point.






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