August 15th. Each summer as a middle and high schooler, I would wake up on the 15th and feel a sinking pit in my stomach. After an entire summer of blissful oblivion, this was the day I would face the reality that I had actual homework to do. From the years 1982-1987, I had still not selected – much less read – my school’s summer reading assignment come August 15th.
I’m a procrastinator. I learned that word in 6th grade when my teacher – Paul Solomon, actually, who just retired this year – used that word to describe me in front of the class. I felt the sting of it and then the acceptance: hey, somebody understood me! There was a word to describe my condition. I liked to wait for the very last minute. I still do. Why else would I wait all summer to write an article about waiting all summer?
It’s not that I didn’t like to read. I loved to read. I became an English teacher, for goodness sakes. And if a future English teacher didn’t want to do her summer reading, imagine what the rest of the kids must have felt like.
Ugh, the drudgery. Having to pick a book from a Xeroxed list. Just the fact that these books were on a list created by teachers made them incredibly and irrevocably unattractive. I may have liked that S.E. Hinton title before, may have even wanted to read Rumblefish before, with the tough-looking pool-playing, leather-jacket wearing guys on the cover, but not now. Now that Rumblefish was officially on a summer reading list, it was officially off of mine.
Plus, it was so hot outside. Who could focus on Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding when it was a humid 96 degrees and my friend Dana had invited me to Atlantic Beach for the day? I’d rather be in the cool waves than in the hot South with Frankie Aadams, that was for sure.
Also, the teachers at my school did something extra sadistic to us by ranking the books by level of difficulty. This was a cruel and unusual torture for a good girl like me who basically wanted to impress her teachers without having to work all that hard to do so. So I studied the list carefully, trying to psyche it out to fit my particular needs, but there was very little room for flexibility, since the list only contained about 6 titles. Not to mention, the ranking system was flawed, definitely. I mean, the books ranged from 1 (easy with illustrations) to 3 (challenging in the way of Russian tomes). It was like a rollercoaster, this list, either going straight up, up, up in a frightening slope or zoom, zoom, zoom down in a fast, breezy downhill. There was hardly any plateau at all for a student like me, who craved safe, steady mediocrity.
One year, I remember selecting Green Mansions, listed by those demented teachers as a solid level 2. The book sticks out in my mind because of the all-green cover and because I couldn’t understand a word of it. Honestly. I read the first page about 6 times before starting to cry. Next, I panicked. I thought I might have lost the ability to read over the summer. Was this what 9th grade was going to be like? Were the teachers using the summer reading list to vet the real students from the fakers? On the first day of school, was I going to be exposed as a fraud and sent back to junior high because of Green Mansions?
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about this novel: “Green Mansions: A Romance of the Tropical Forest (1904) is an exotic romance by William Henry Hudson about a traveler to the Guyana jungle of southeastern Venezuela and his encounter with a forest dwelling girl named Rima.” The main characters, besides the aforementioned Rima, are Abel, Nuflo, Cla-Cla, and Kao-Ko.
I’m sure it’s a classic, but I’ve gotta say, you couldn’t pay me enough to read that book even now. I demanded that my mom take me right back to B. Dalton so that I could humble myself with a level 1 book. It probably had colorful fish on the cover and used rhyming couplets to explain the plot, but anything was better than trying to navigate Ytaiao mountain with Kao-Ko.
And now I’ve got to complain about B. Dalton, may she rest in peace, the only bookstore in town when I was young. By August 15th, the summer reading titles had all but disappeared from the local libraries, so my mom and I had no choice but to purchase a copy from B. Dalton. But, each August, B. Dalton had been picked clean by middle and high school students who all clutched the same perverse book list in their sweaty fists. There was nothing left for a late-comer like me, so, invariably, as part of the summer reading dance that I did with my mom, we would have to mosey on up to the information desk in the bookstore and sashay and parlay our needs to the salesperson. This is in a pre-computer era, mind you, so the salesperson would then take out some kind of huge index and look up the ISBN for my lame level 1 book and then handwrite out a carbon copy paper with my name and address and the ISBN. The book would then be delivered not to me, but to the store in 7-10 days, at which time my mom would drive me over to B. Dalton and we would pay.
I began reading that stupid novel in the bookstore parking lot, because, of course, school started the very next day.
Hey, as a procrastinator, at least I would have the plot fresh in my mind when I wrote my back-to-school essay about it.
I hope you’ve done your summer reading, everyone! And if not, I know just the word for you.
Columnist and blogger Julie Gerstenblatt writes with humor and candor about her life in Scarsdale, her friends and family, and the particular demands of motherhood and wifedom in modern-day suburbia. She recently published her first novel, Lauren Takes Leave.