Monday, June 22, 2015

new school books

No one ever told us that a book is a precious thing. Every year (this would be the 1960s) as fall rolled around, each child at school was given a stack of textbooks that contained some of the material to be learned or at least wrestled with during the school year. Math book, geography, science, reading, et cetera.
There was a label inside the cover with seven or eight lines on it. If it was a new book, you wrote your name on the top line, the first student to have the good fortune to be partnered with this object for a school year. If the school had owned the book already for, say, three or four years, your signature might go on the fourth line. You could see which kids had carried the book in the previous years - maybe there would be the name of someone you knew, now graduated into a higher grade. Or maybe it would be a stranger's name, but somehow, that name of that older kid was your companion for the year whenever you opened your book.

We were supposed to take care of our books and not mark in them or crease the pages, knowing they were to be shared across several years.

What was fun the first week of school was that there would be stacks of brown paper to be used as book covers. Each one was printed with directions, and with the name of the company who provided them for us. I remember there was the label of a local brand of bread emblazoned on some of ours.

We weren't supposed to write IN the book, but we could doodle and ornament the cover with twirls and cartoons and decorative printing as we liked. 'Go, Tigers!' or psychedelic peace signs. A best friend might add a word or two of humor on your book cover during an idle moment in class.

The process of covering the book was very challenging. In your early years, you brought the covers and the books home so your parents or older siblings could help. Later years, you could cover them yourself in the classroom. It took practice and skill, folding the cover just right so it wouldn't slide off. Many times I had to start over, the cover folded so tight I couldn't close the book. I never did quite figure that out.

One teacher, handing out new textbooks, taught us how to open a brand new book in a way that would not damage the spine. You hold the book in a closed position with its spine against the desk or table. You take just the front cover and a few pages, and smooth it against the table, still holding the rest of the book upright. Then you do the same with the back cover. More pages from the front, then more from the back until you reach the middle pages.

New books smelled so lovely - the paper, the glue. The pages were so crisp and clean, they were almost sharp along the edges. Old books had a complex aroma, composed of the myriad activities in the life of a child. Sweaty palms after basketball in the gym, dust from handstands at recess, dog or cat at home snoozing on top of the book. The pages softened and dulled over the years, evidence of the history of its existence.

After these routines for a few years, you came to realize, without the teacher having to spell it out, the book is something to be appreciated and cared for. With most but not all of the textbooks, the contents were such a pleasure and treasure of interesting information, we came to know this truth, how precious is a book, for ourselves.

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