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March 3, 2014
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“Are you asleep yet?” my mother asks. I reply with a sleepy groan. I’m somewhere in between the dismal vastness of the British moor and the comfort of my pink fleece blanket from Target. Mom closes The Secret Garden and I drift into a slumber littered with fantasies of Colin’s recovery and Dickon’s adventurous proposals. This was my bedtime routine for years, before Advanced Placement homework dominated my nights. My mother’s words glided over the intricate descriptions of Elmer’s packing list in My Father’s Dragon, and painted Anne of Green Gables’ observations of autumn in Novia Scotia across my pajama pants. I fell in love with the infinite possibilities of a story; in my third-grade dreams, I got to touch the perfectly plump tangerines Elmer picked up on his journey to Wild Island, and see every tiny detail in the lives of Caddie Woodlawn and Jo March. I sorely miss that bedtime ritual and am deeply aware of how reading with my mom for all those years built within me the capacity to make use of books in ways that surprise me.

Come sophomore year of high school, I began to fully appreciate how books could provide something other than a trip away from daily worries and fodder for pleasant dreams. I have Mrs. Sullivan to thank for this. She has been teaching Art History at my high school for so long that everyone refers to the class as “Sullivan’s Art History.” True to that moniker, she is a part of the course; her gentle explanations of Etruscan tomb painting, her treating students to M&M’s during tests, and most of all, her tearful appreciation for Michelangelo’s sculptures of dawn and dusk, made this a personal guided tour of her world of art. In exchange for the yearlong ride, Mrs. Sullivan insisted that we keep up with the reading in our ten-pound book, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. Our first assignment, which caused me to shudder, was to read and take notes on the first forty-five pages by the next class.

That night, I stared at the cover: it was a painting of two naked people, a pair of cheetahs, and a dog relaxing on the shore of Naxos. (I would later learn that this is a mythological narrative by Titian.) Then I turned to the first chapter. Within twenty minutes, I had filled up three pages with ink, unable to distinguish between important information and excessive details. My brain was swimming with cave paintings and fertility figurines, and I still had thirty-five pages left. How would I ever make it through this course?

The next class, I got my answer. When Mrs. Sullivan began reflecting on the enormous size of the solid bronze cast of Queen Napir-Asu of ancient Elam, an alarm sounded in my head. I flipped through my notes and raised my hand to inform Mrs. Sullivan that Her Majesty weighs a hefty 3,760 pounds. I didn’t care that I sounded like a brown-noser. I had explored every crevice of Gardner’s endless first chapter and in so doing, brought Queen Napir-Asu to life. In that moment I was reminded of the joy a book could bring me. Gardner’s is academic -- the gorgeous scenery of Anne’s Nova Scotia was replaced with the components of an Ionic column -- but it fascinated me nonetheless. Gardner’s inspired me to roam through the caves, cathedrals, and salons of history. Through this 1,150-page information boulder, I experienced a subject that was totally new to me, and I learned to love it, just as I loved the pastel green paperback of The Secret Garden that came with a cheesy locket taped to the cover.

Currently, I’m reading John Krakauer’s Into the Wild for AP Language & Composition and it has made me pretty distraught. I worry that Sam, my hiking-obsessed brother, will follow the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, and abandon his family for a life of solitude in the wilderness. I reassure myself by recalling how overwhelmed I felt by Gardner’s, and that if I could ingest all those artists and technical terms, I could surely rein in my emotional eruption and keep reading. And so I have; I have five chapters to go and I love every moment of McCandless’ solitude.

Returning to sophomore year, I decided to take over the project that Sam started in his senior year, gathering his friends’ old review books for the SAT, ACT, and AP exams, and organized them in a bookshelf in the College & Career Center at school. The mini-library is available to students from low-income families. I am collecting more books, promoting the program in school, and have “branded” each book with a heart-shaped sticker branded with my organization’s name. Looking at the line up of review books that were saved from recycling bins inspires me to keep pestering kids to donate their leftovers.

The novels my mom read to me transported me to a richer dream world. Mrs. Sullivan’s pride in seeing me devote so much energy to Gardner’s confirmed for me that any book can be a source of inspiration. Seeing the list of students who have signed out APSAT books leads me to believe in the power of a stack of pages and a spine.

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