9.25.2021 – my being able

my being able
to read, get hold of a book
these impressions last

Came across this statement the other day.

I mention that away back in my childhood, the earliest days of my being able to read, I got hold of a small book … I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country … [that] fixed themselves upon my imagination … and you all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than any others.

This was said by Abraham Lincoln.

I didn’t read that statement as a kid but I knew this painting as a kid.

Young Abe Lincoln by Eastman Johnson – 1868 – University of Michigan Museum of Art

I cannot remember a time in my life that I didn’t know the images and story of this painting.

Imagine my delight when I happened to walk through the University of Michigan Art Museums (it what was supposed to be Alumni Memorial Hall) and discovered that Michigan OWNED the painting but another time – it’s a great story.)

I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a home with a fireplace.

A fireplace for show and not for heat but a real working fireplace that we used often.

When I could, I would turn off all the lights and try to read by firelight.

Maybe that is why I needed glasses so soon.

It was fun.

It was cozy.

It made me really appreciate Thomas Edison and the stories of the Rural Electrification Act.

I cannot remember when I started reading or maybe I should say I cannot remember my life without reading.

Back in the day, if you attended the Grand Rapids Public Schools, your family had to buy school books.

This changed by the time I started school but being the 8th kid in a family of 11 kids, it meant that we had piles of school books all over the house.

At some point I picked up the early Dick and Jane books and went on from there.

But the time I got into school it seems like I had already read many of the text books I would use in elementary school.

And I got bored.

Me being bored led to me finding other things to do during class.

This is sometimes known as disruptive behavior.

I wasn’t trying to be disruptive but goodness it was boring to just sit.

This often led to interactions with my teacher that resulted in me being sent out into the hall.

The hallways at Crestview Elementary school were lined with benches and shelves and pegs for coats.

I was supposed to sit there and reflect on my disruptive ways.

I didn’t mind being out there alone but there was always a chance that another class might walk by and see me on their way to gym or music or something.

If that happened there was a chance that one of my brothers or sisters would see me.

If they saw me, they would tell on me when I got home and who needs that.

One time I saw my brother’s class coming and I hid under the coats hanging there.

When we got home my brother, all so innocently says, “Mike, what were you doing in the hallway?”

I of course denied it and he says he saw me.

I forgot that I was denying it and yelled that he couldn’t have seen me as I was hidden.

My brother yelled right back that maybe my top half was hidden but my legs and shoes were there in the hallway.

At some point the decision was made that instead of the hallway I would be sent to the library.

This may have something to do with the fact that the classroom wall along the hallway had a row of windows across the top.

In the hallway, if you climbed up the wall and stood on the shelf over the coat pegs and jumped up you could see and be seen through those windows.

Don’t ask me how I know that but like I said, it may have something to do with why I was now being sent to the library.

I was ready to complain about it because I complained about everything.

Then it sunk in where I was going.

I was going to the library.

Honestly, and I remember this clear as day, my first thought was of Brer Rabbit and don’t throw me in that briar patch and I almost said, “Don’t send me to that library” but somehow I figured that my teacher knew all about Brer Rabbit so I kept my mouth shut for once.

Also, somehow or other, as much I understood the relationship between being a little disruptive and being sent to the library and that this relationship was open to exploitation but I decided to play it honest and not push it.

Someway I knew this punishment was privilege and I could mess it up.

And I was disruptive enough without trying.

So I kept my disruptive behavior to organic origins.

From then on, at some point in any given day I would get wound up or bored or both and my teacher would catch my eye.

I would hang my head for a second or two, I got real good at showing despair, and get up and walk to the door.

‘Shall we saw 15 minutes?’ my teacher would say.

I would nod and walk out.

I would walk down the hallway first to the Principal’s office.

There I would approach the school secretary who would open a drawer and get out a set of keys and find the library key.

I would take the keys and walk to the library and unlock and open the door.

Then I would take the keys back to the School Secretary and say, “15 minutes today.”

She would replace the keys in the drawer and nod her head.

I returned to the library and closed the door and turned on the lights.

I was in third grade.

I was in the library by myself.

I was alone with all those books.

Few things in life have been more enjoyable than that moment.

At different times in my life, being alone in the bookstore where I worked or first one to the various public libraries where I later worked I have come close to this feeling of empowered freedom.

The library was filled with books.

Books were the keys to everything.

I had the key to the library.

What more could anyone want?

Some philosopher is in the back of my brain, George Santayana seems to be attached to this thought but why ruin a moment with the google, saying that happiness is a shack to live in within 5 miles of a major university library.

And then there was young Abe Lincoln.

Young Abe Lincoln loved to read.

Young Abe Lincoln reading by fire light.

Young Abe Lincoln walking miles to borrow books.

Young Abe Lincoln waking up to find a book wrecked by dripping snow and walking miles to offer to work for days to pay for the damage.

Young Abe Lincoln’s delight at being given the self same book when the debt was paid.

Young Abe Lincoln alone with his book.

This is the kicker about these young Abe Lincoln stories.

They all seem to be pretty much darn close to the truth.

What is about Mr. Lincoln?

Of all people, Leo Tolstoy was recorded as saying, “If one would know the greatness of Lincoln one should lis­ten to the stories which are told about him in other parts of the world. Once while travelling in the Caucasus I happened to be the guest of a Caucasian chief of the Circassian … {This Chief] lifted his hand and said very gravely ‘But you have not told us a syllable about the greatest gen­eral and greatest ruler of the world. We want to know some­thing about him. He was a hero. He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of roses. The angels appeared to his mother and predicted that the son whom she would con­ceive would become the greatest the stars had ever seen. He was so great that he even forgave the crimes of his greatest enemies and shook brotherly hands with those who had plotted against his life. His name was Lincoln and the country in which he lived is called America, which is so far away that if a youth should journey to reach it he would be an old man when he arrived. Tell us of that man.

I am not sure of all that.

I know I was once a little kid in America.

I knew that Mr. Lincoln was once a little kid in America.

I liked to read.

He liked to read.

I think we could have hung out in the library.

That fixed itself upon my imagination, and you all know, for you have all been kids, how these early impressions last longer than any others.

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