Slouching Toward Bedlam

She Reads to Conquer Or The Books U Give

Christine Lopez stood outside the biology room, staring at Sam Toomer’s classroom door. It was Friday, the students had left, and after the weekend was over Monday would mark the start of book week. Sam’s door had on it the same bright green piece of paper she had hung on everyone’s door. The same piece of paper she described in the memo she circulated that morning during faculty devotions. The instructions were simple. On one side of the paper it said, “My favorite book is ________.” The faculty member would then fill in their favorite book of all time. On the other side of the green paper it said, “The book that I am currently reading is ________.” The faculty member could choose to fill in the book they were reading at that time. Christina figured that this would give faculty the choice of which side to answer. And after all, even if someone isn’t reading right now, everyone had a favorite book, right?

Sam had apparently chosen the second option, but in the blank Sam had written in his distinctive left-handed scrawl, “Nothing. I haven’t read a book in ten years.”

Christine just stood there with her mouth open. She thought about the other doors she had looked at. Gord Winkle, the shop teacher, had written in two titles: German Birdhouse Clocks You Can Make in Your Basement and 101 More Foods You Can Deep Fry. Jane VanderAsch, the math teacher, was confident enough to admit that she was reading Cryptography for Dummies. Choir teacher Carrie Wellema was reading a biography of Wagner called Hold Your Winged Horses. Even Ed McGonigal had filled out the one Christine had hung on the door to the janitor’s office. Ed’s favorite book was Piping down the Braes and Lochs though Christine had to admit she had no idea what that might be about. Principal VanderHaar was reading Leadership Lessons from the Marvel Universe, which Christine was sure must represent some kind of practical joke, since VanderHaar surely couldn’t tell the Black Panther from the Green Goblin. The point is, every one of them had supported her initiative, except for Sam Toomer. And he had left. So what was she going to do now?

In retrospect, she should have seen this coming. Sam had been the faculty member leading the charge to rename the library, insisting all documents and signage refer to it henceforth as the media center. Sam had pushed the one-to-one program, arguing that if students had a device, they wouldn’t need to lug around heavy textbooks. And Sam had been the teacher to propose that for one week in April the school should adopt a project-based learning model in every subject, every classroom—and no books were to be allowed.

Leaning against the wall outside Sam’s classroom, Christine sighed heavily.

“Things can’t be as bleak as that sigh makes them sound,” a voice said behind her. She turned to see Bible teacher Cal Vandermeer smiling at her. With a frown, she jerked a thumb over her shoulder, directing Cal to Sam’s message. Cal’s smile fell.

“So he’s at it again,” he muttered. “That man is to books what the Protestant iconoclasts were to medieval church artwork. If he has his way, there won’t be a book left in the county.”

“And you know what, Cal? People like him are winning. They’re winning! Fewer and fewer of my students and colleagues seem to read with any regularity. And the school board . . . well, Sam has got them in his hip pocket. They are totally into robots and iPads and computer-assisted design, they’ll spend any amount of money on such programs, but they couldn’t care less if their kids can’t express a complete thought or read and understand a complex text.”

“Whoa, there, Christine, you may be exaggerating a bit.”

“Am I? Remember two years ago when we adopted our one-to-one policy. Two months before the school board passed that policy, we had that group called Be Careful Little Eyes come out for two days to talk to students, parents, teachers, and board members. If you remember, then surely you’ll recall that one of their main points was the suggestion that students already spend too many hours per day staring at screens. They said that all their research suggested kids would be healthier physically, mentally, and emotionally if parents did more to limit their screen time. We all shout hypocritical ‘Amens’ to that, and then two months later, we make it mandatory for kids to carry a device with them the entire school day!”

Christine stood there, flushed and breathing heavily. She had not anticipated she’d get as angry as she just had. As she had spoken, Cal’s brow had begun to furrow the way it did when he thought deeply. He said, “We live in odd times, Christine. Technology changes faster than we can, and kids need to learn how, when, where, and why to use it.”

Christine was about to interject when Cal held up a finger to stop her. He continued, “But old technologies are also important. With all the advances in hand tools over the centuries, I don’t know a single tradesman that doesn’t carry some kind of hammer, the oldest tool of all.”

“You sound like Rex, spouting some of his Zen hoo-hah,” Christine said bitterly. “I don’t know what hammers have to do with anything.”

Cal smiled. “My point is that books, like a hammer, will always be useful. There is no more powerful, portable, or nearly eternal way to pass along ideas than books. The internet is great for finding out facts and quick summaries of things, but books let us dig deeply into concepts. And people like Sam will never change that.”

Christine nodded. It felt like cold consolation.

Cal continued. “And it isn’t necessarily as hopeless as you say. My niece is an editor with a publisher in Boston, and she was telling me the other day that young adult books are one of the most powerful markets in publishing. We have some students who are voracious readers.”

“But it’s the ones who don’t appreciate reading that I want to change,” said Christina passionately. Cal could see her eyes glisten. “And these kids look up to teachers. Why can’t Sam be a part of helping them.”

“Perhaps he can,” said Cal with mischief in his eyes. He turned on his heel and started off toward the staff workroom. Christina stood perplexed for a moment before he said over his shoulder, “Well, come on. If a book is like a hammer, maybe give some the dickens with some Dickens.”

Christine smiled and started after him. “Or put a dent in his skull with some Dante.”

Cal raised his coffee mug in salute. “Now you’re getting the idea.”

On Monday, Sam Toomer was running late. When he got to his room, he saw that his scrawled anti-book protest had been taken down. It had been replaced with a laminated sign on the same color paper. Printed on it were the words, “It has been a while since I read a good book. Please give me some suggestions.”

He was about to rip it down when he heard a voice behind him. “Sam, running a little late this morning, huh?” Sam turned to see Principal VanderHaar. “Mr. Vandermeer told me about your sign. What a great way to embrace reading week! I thought we might run a little piece in the constituent newsletter about all the suggestions you get. At the end of the week, maybe get a picture of you with the sign and a pile of books. Way to be part of the team, Toomer!”

Cal Vandermeer happened to be passing by Sam’s room at that moment and smiled wide and raised his coffee cup in Sam’s direction.


Jan Karsvlaam recently left his fifth-grade teaching position at Rainy Meadow Christian School near Vancouver, British Columbia, following an unfortunate misunderstanding after his five-month social studies unit based on the book Beef: Using Live Animals to Protest Corporate Farms. He is happy to report that fifteen of the seventeen cows have been accounted for, his students are responding well to counseling, and most of the damage to city hall was merely cosmetic. Jan is looking for a teaching position pretty much anywhere.