A Book That Changed My Life

A few evenings ago at a lovely dinner party during one of those conversations that move easily from topic to topic (errant fire alarms to parking fines) and place to place (an ATM in Burma to a burly motorcycle officer in Germany), my friend Susan talked about David Brooks’s lecture at the Chautaugua Institute she attended in July. When Brooks asked his students at Yale University about the last time they read a book that changed their lives, they stared at him.

David Brooks, Chautaugua, 8/16/13

David Brooks, Chautaugua,
8/16/13

“You’ve got to understand that we don’t really read that way,” they told him. “We read to get through the class, but the deep, penetrative reading, we just don’t have time for.”

This made me think:  Could I do that? Could I name one book that changed my life? My first challenge was trying to remember all the important books I’ve read over the years. But then it hit me: if a book changed my life, how could I ever forget it?

Finally I did remember one book. And so I wrote the following riff on that book. In a future blog, I hope to talk more about why and how that book changed my life.images

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Miss Caine Reads Les Miserables to Our Seventh Grade Class (April 1955)

There you are, Miss Caine,
the most beautiful woman we have ever seen.
Your dark hair curls almost to your shoulders
and springs up around your face in tendrils
that your long fingers can never tame.
Your pencil skirt pulls across your hips
and a white blouse with a small collar
reveals your long neck. You wear
nylons and black pumps and sit with legs crossed
on your desk. The book is in your lap.

After lunch, we enter your classroom
all sweaty from running around the playground.
Some of us have begun to pair up.
I’m in love with Robert Owens.
My friend Donna Kirby isn’t sure,
but she thinks that James likes her.
Our first dance is in a few weeks.
My mother is making me a pink taffeta dress
with a layer of net over the full skirt.
Last night I turned as Mother measured
and marked the hem with her chalk.

But today as we return from lunch
still smelling like wax paper and milk cartons,
you open the big book and start to read.
We settle into our wooden desks.
Some cross their arms and
lower shoulders onto desk tops.
Miss Caine doesn’t seem to mind.
She is caught up in the lives
of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette.
French street fighting explodes around our heads
and we know the meaning of the eternal chase
and we know what it means to be an orphan
even though we are as secure as we will ever be.

The bell will ring in three hours.
I will walk home and have peanut butter crackers
and half a small Coke with my mother
as we watch Edge of Night.
But for now, Miss Caine reads
Les Miserables and we will
never be quite the same again.

–Vicky Lettmann (8/19/13)

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Writing Jumpstart: A Book That Changed Your Life. Go for ten minutes.

I enjoy reading your jumpstart writings. So send me one of yours. Please limit to 500 words.  (See contact page.) I plan to publish a few on the site. Thanks!

6 thoughts on “A Book That Changed My Life

  1. Hi Vicky. Thank you for the poem. I love the turn into pink taffeta from the teacher’s lean lines. The first book that came to mind, for me, the book that always comes to mind, is “Four Gated City” by Doris Lessing. I read it in the early 70s as I became involved with the women’s movement in Texas. The wanderer and the woman, wondering where she fit, moving from a farm in Africa to the city of London. I’ve read it a few times since and the thing that captured me was the way the writer moved the main character in and out of time and landscape and dream and reality. From there I moved to “Golden Notebook” and began keeping journals – notebooks. Having more than one notebook became entirely too complicated in my traveling life (I was married to the Army at the time and about to move to Germany) and while I didn’t journal every day (I do now) there’s enough in there to let me watch this me-woman grow and change. One of the changes I saw early on while rereading was that there were some battles I didn’t have to fight anymore. Some changes I had made. And now the more than forty years of journals renew my memory and help me find my way through memoir. And since we haven’t heard that Doris Lessing has died (I’m sure it would be news if she had) we’ll salute one lady that had the courage to be different and demanding in her work and who led many of us to new understandings of ourselves. Just as Miss Caine did with her reading.

    • Thank you, thank you, Janet, for your insightful response. I read Doris Lessing’s “Golden Notebook” many years ago, but your words make me want to return to it and also read “The Four-Gated City.”
      That is one benefit of these later years of life. I do have time to read more and to reflect on how my reading can change how look at the world. You’re right about teachers like Miss Caine and writers like Doris Lessing: they show us the way.
      Also how right you about those journals. I’m reading the ones my mother left me now. They bring her back!

  2. Vicky, I’ve always been a reader and, to this day, can recite Dumbo by heart. But a book that truly made an impact was a collection of poems by my favorite professor at Duke: Helen Bevington. The poems were marvelous but it was the title that got me: “When found make a verse of…..” I took the title to heart and have been ‘doing it’ ever since.
    Susan

    • Thanks, Susan, and for hosting that wonderful dinner that provided inspiration for this post. I’d like to know about Helen Bevington. She sounds like another Miss Caine. Oh these teachers and how they lead us to new ways of seeing! Maybe that is one reason I became an English teacher in my previous life.

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