Mrs. Renner managed the classroom with authority, humor and a pinch of sarcasm. She was probably the best teacher I ever had; for she introduced us to good books. We read: Where the Red Fern Grows, Number The Stars, The Phantom Tollbooth, Island of the Blue Dolphins, Bridge to Terabithia.
I didn’t realize at the time what an impact those books would make on me or how they would help me later in life. When Mrs. Renner read to us, we weren’t listening to improve our language skills, we were encountering life, it’s beauty and it’s pains. These books taught us how to live, how to cope with boredom, loss, how to think.
I don’t remember ever being tested on these readings, they were given without attachment to scores, or outcomes. Mrs. Renner did not come between the student and the book. This made all the difference; these books spoke and she simply let them.
I was not a big reader at the time, but I quickly became entranced by Billy’s love for his two dogs Old Dan and Little Ann, Karana’s shrewdness, her grief at losing her brother, Annemarie’s courage, Milo’s adventures, but Bridge to Terabithia was my favourite.
Initially, I was disappointed that Terabithia was not another Narnia. A new world did not unfold, rather a sad story of friendship. In it I encountered grief in a new way. In Island of the Blue Dolphins the struggles were of a far off land in circumstances beyond my little world but in this one, loss was confronted in everyday life. The book stayed with me as good books do.
Four years later, my younger brother fell from a tree in our backyard woods and died. Those woods were our romping grounds. We were children in those woods, warriors, pioneers, confederate soldiers, doctors, nurses and then we weren’t. Childhood ended with the shock of death, the sharp pain of loss, the dull ache of grief.
As a Catholic, I had hope in eternal life. As a young girl with no actual experience of death until then, books inadvertently became a guide to grief. Thankfully, good ones had been set in my path by a good and loving teacher. And when I had the courage to walk in those woods again, Billy, Karana, Annemarie, Milo, Jess and Leslie all came back to me, their losses, their grief, their grit. I was not alone.