[Here’s an addendum to the Mind Meld about Books That Have Had a Profound Effect on Readers and Writers, coming from Robin Riopelle.]
Books have the power to make us laugh, cry, and everything in between, and there are those books (you know what I’m talking about) that can actually change the way we think and influence us in very powerful ways, even changing the course of our lives. I asked our panel this question:
Here’s what Robin had to say…
Okay, so it’s Grade 10 Novels class. We’ve just finished Tess of the D’Urbervilles, remarkable only insofar as we got to go to the movie theatre and watch Natassja Kinski eat a strawberry. (Hint: my influential book was not Tess of the D’Urbervilles)
We are a sad set of rural teens, pockmarked, acid-washed, and semi-literate. However, our teacher, Mr. S, is the Real Deal. He has a Master’s degree in Literature from the University of Toronto, and I want nothing more than to impress him.
Mr. S runs into the classroom, a full five minutes late, and writes on the blackboard: “Surprise Test”. We groan. He passes out papers face down on our desks. He returns to the board, keeps writing. “This is a pass/fail test worth 50% of your final grade,” he says, turning. “Here’s the rules.”
You must answer every question correctly to pass.
You have 45 minutes.
We are appalled. “See you at the bell,” he says. And leaves.
Hushed, terrified, we turn the test sheets over. Weaned on Space Invaders and Dukes of Hazzard, the questions might as well be in Esperanto.
What was Benjamin Franklin’s mother’s name? (keep in mind, we’re Canadian)
What were the Argonauts seeking?
Who were the twins that founded Rome?
Remarkable, also, that the questions have nothing to do with Natassja Kinski and the strawberry. Out of thirty, I can probably answer four.
Muttering commences. Then Lynda stands up. I don’t know where Lynda is today, I can barely remember her at all, other than she was a year older, and very good at volleyball. She barks at pliable, doofus Chris: go to the board, write numbers one through thirty.
Our collective brainpower is hardly considerable—between us, we can summon only ten answers, most of those guesses. Lynda points to the rules. “Mr. S didn’t say anything about not going to the library.” She assigns a question to each of us, and off we go.
To a teen, we stay after the bell sounds. Mr. S strolls in, glances at the board, and smiles. Looks us over as though we’ve changed since he last saw us. “So, who stood up?” We share furtive glances. “It’s okay, the test doesn’t actually count for anything,” (this back in the day when teachers could pull this kind of stunt), “but someone organized you.”
Chris clears his throat. “It was Lynda.” We all look to her. Mr. S smiles even harder. “Great,” he says. “Tomorrow, we’ll start Lord of the Flies.”
I have remembered this introduction to William Golding’s seminal work for a lot of different reasons. One, no matter how much I had wanted to ingratiate myself to Mr. S, and how I was a waaaaaay better student than Lynda, I wasn’t the one who stood up.
It isn’t shame that lingers, not precisely, it is more the way this exercise reflected a certain, brutal truth: Books matter. That the purpose of a story is to hold a mirror to our world, to show us the things we’d rather not see.
When I read, I look for this. When I write, I aim for this goal. So this is a little note of appreciation, Mr. S, wherever you are. You changed my life.