An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

My elementary school offered daily library time. Our librarian probably had no training in library science—at least she never attempted to teach us the use of the card catalog or any other research skills. But she did read us exciting stories, lead us in choral recitations of nonsense poetry, and allow us free reading time.

My junior high library time was less impressive. All 7th grade students spent one period a day in the  library where we had free reading time, but no instruction in library skills. I inserted nonsense phrases in the middle of my book reports to prove my suspicion that Mr. Watts never read them.

Not until 8th grade did I learn about the Dewey Decimal System—and that libraries contained nonfiction books. Mrs. Taylor, my English teacher, required us to do outside reading in each section of the DDS. I discovered art of personality improvement books numbered in the 700 arts section and devoured all our library offered in hopes of transcending my 13-year-old gawkiness. I found Richard Halliburton in the 910 section, and set a goal of graduating from college and following Halliburton’s footsteps on a two-year hitchhiking trek around the globe.

Alas, my golden teacher had a clay toe. We were assigned to write a poem, and Mrs. T. raved about the poem, Winnie, a Danish immigrant, turned in. When she read it to the class, I recognized the poem from my Childcraft book. Mrs. T. sent Winnie’s poem to a poetry contest for junior high students. How could an English teacher not know that “The Clouds” was written by Christina Rossetti?

I did not snitch on Winnie—not because of any compassion for a non-native speaker, but because I feared Mrs. T. would think my motivation was envy of the attention she gave Winnie while ignoring my own poetic effort.

Despite the poetry episode, Mrs. T. remains one of my favorite and most influential teachers, and 40 years after exiting her classroom, I found myself teaching 8th grade English.

By then I had new respect for Mrs. T. She could not have been expected to know a minor poem by Christina Rossetti. Did I, like my favorite teacher, open doors to new worlds for my students—exposing them to authors who broadened their world beyond the boundaries of Utah? Did I give them tools to express their thoughts in a form to share with others? Did I motivate them to seek and to question?

I hope so, but I will never know for sure.  Eighth grade is the armpit of life. Thirteen-year-olds are too busy being miserable to learn much. But I do hope my students at least left my classes with hope for a better life beyond junior high.

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