Sunday, October 30, 2016

Mrs. Soileau

Because of my Cajun background, I struggled through school. I would sit at the back of my classrooms and barely listen to the teachers. I believe that was the first time I tried to create a story. I do not remember the specifics of it, but I do remember being very proud of it. At recess, I tried to relate it to Lee Ray and Garrett, but it did not come out right—I had forgotten all the exciting details. If I could find a way to lock the words in my head as soon as they flashed by, I would be able to tell a great story. Of course, that was impossible for me.
All that changed in the fifth grade.
Mrs. Fruge, my fifth grade teacher, liked to take us to the library once a week.
Shelves divided our school library in half: juvenile books in front for elementary students; more mature-minded books in back guarded by the librarian’s desk. Mrs. Soileau was the librarian. She was a stout woman with salt and pepper hair and reading glasses on a bulldog face. I hated the library, the dusty, musty smell of it. I hated how inadequate I felt around all those books that I could not read very well.
I hated Mrs. Soileau, also. She was the keeper of the books and the knowledge that seemed to escape me.
The first time Mrs. Soileau ever talked to me, aside from shushing me, was my second library visit.
She saw me browsing through the easy to read section.
She asked in her soft librarian voice that disturbed nobody, what I was interested in.
I was irritated that she had picked me to talk to, but I told her that I was interested in cowboys, Indians, and soldiering.
She led me to a shelf in the junior reading section. I tried to explain to her that I could not read on a junior level, but she did not listen. She reached over and pulled down a blue book from the shelf, a biography of Davey Crockett, and handed it to me.
I took the book to a table and opened it. At first, I was apprehensive, but as I read, the book caught and held my interest. It contained everything I enjoyed: Indians, hunting, and fighting. Although I had some problems with the vocabulary, I understood nearly everything. At the end of the study period, I asked Mrs. Soileau if I could check it out. She lowered her reading glasses and smiled.
Halfway through the school year, Mrs. Soileau called me down. I had read every one of the blue biographies, so I had nothing to do. Lee Ray and I were teasing Garrett because he had spent a valuable first recess talking to Kay. I would poke Lee Ray in the ribs, and we would giggle.
Mrs. Soileau barked my name, and I shuffled over to her desk. She glared at me over her reading glasses.
After a brief lecture on the sanctity of the library, she stood up from the desk and led me to the shelves against the rear wall. She pulled down a book and handed it to me.
I read the title, Tom Sawyer.
I returned to a little table away from Garrett and Lee Ray and started reading the book. At first, I found it difficult, but as I ventured further into the novel, I found it easier to read.
Tom Sawyer was the secret I had been looking for—put the story in writing as it occurs to you, and it would always be there for you. That evening I rushed home from school with my prize, unlocked the door to Mark Twain's mind, and found a wonderful world there. When I finished the book, I rushed to my desk and started the first of many pages of writing.
I am eternally grateful to Mrs. Soileau. Without her, I may have found Mark Twain anyway, but who knows if I would have found the key. I became one of Mrs. Soileau's special library visitors after that. She introduced me to more of Mark Twain and other writers as well: Jack London, Edgar Allen Poe, Carl Sandburg, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and a host of others.
"I want to be a writer," I told her once when I was in the eight grade.
She lowered her reading glasses, and with misty bulldog eyes, she winked at me.

This essay first appeared, read by me, on WKMS, a National Public Radio affiliate.

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