Stories in Books, Stories Within

WHEN I was young, I was a good swimmer. In fact, when the youngest group on the swim team raced the width of the pool instead of the length, I won a blue ribbon in the first race of my life; I closed my eyes, heard the whistle blow, bashed my way across the pool, and, to my amazement, found that I was first. That was the last race I won. In the longer races later, I ran out of steam. I was a fat kid, a good swimmer, but one who slowed down after the first few yards.

When I was 11, I went to camp on Lake Geneva in Wisconsin. It was a camp for boys on a campus of lakefront buildings and grounds used during the school year as a military academy. When we arrived, they tested our swimming. I swam well but slowly. They said I had to take swimming lessons.

One of the things that I had figured out by then was that if I did not want to do something adults wanted me to do, and if I could present a reasonable alternative, I could usually get my way. I could object to decisions made ``in my behalf'' and, if I was fairly forthright, reach some compromise. I told my camp counselor that I already knew how to swim, that I had been on a swimming team at home, that I was slow because I was heavy, and that swimming lessons weren't going to change that. He insisted only once that I show up for lessons. I told him that I would be in the library reading instead of going to the lesson. And that is where I went at swimming-lesson time, day in and day out. No one ever said a thing again about swimming lessons.

It was wonderful to find that big library, not just because it is not usually something that one finds at a camp, but also because it was summer. I had no homework, and it was just the right time for me to be giving some time to reading, as well as to horses, campouts, sailing, baseball and, yes, swimming. I was just at the right age to begin exploring books beyond those that lined my parents library shelves, every Book-of-the-Month-Club offering since 1958. I went to the library at camp, and I began to look around. Dad had talked a lot about Hemingway, so I went to ``H'' in fiction. I took a little book off the shelf: It was ``The Old Man and the Sea.'' I sat between the stacks and started reading.

I read and read, and when it was time to leave, I checked out the book. I finished it that night, in bed. It is a short novel, really just a long short story. But of all the things that happened to me at camp, it was this one experience that did more than just fill up the time between the end of one school year and the beginning of another. By reading this book, I discovered that I had become my own teacher.

It is a simple story. An old fisherman goes fishing again after having caught nothing for weeks. A huge fish bites and then pulls him far out to sea. The man holds on for days and finally pulls in the biggest fish he has ever seen.

He sees in this fish and in the money it will bring to him the possibility for ending his struggle for survival. He lashes the fish to the side of the boat. Then the sharks come and, bite by bite, devour his fish and his fortune. He arrives home with a huge skeleton. He beaches his boat. The other fishermen look in amazement at the skeleton. He goes home to bed, and he dreams of lions dancing on the beach.

I read this little story of courage, loss, and the restorative power of dreams, and something shifted. I became faintly aware that the images I created as I read the words, the feelings I felt as I went from page to page, the meanings I found within myself as I read the story of a man I never knew by a writer I never knew - that all of the things the words evoked were being drawn from the deep well of my life to teach me something, something not so much about an old fisherman but about myself. That old fisherman may never have existed, but as all great art does, the story about him showed me that I was a person with desires, disappointments, and immutable dreams quite separate from those of others, even my parents. I began to discover - and at age 11, I found this to be frightening and amazing - that all any person or any book can do for me is to help me listen to my own inner voices and to allow me to become my own teacher.

School started recently for my children, and on the night before my son, Jeremy, began second grade I called him to say good night and to wish him well on his first day of the school year. He said, ``I'm worried, Dad.''

``Why?'' I asked.

``It's going to be hard, Dad. Second grade isn't like first grade. It's going to be hard. Do you think I will be OK?'' he asked.

``Jeremy, you are smart. You did fine last year,'' I said. I didn't know exactly where his concern was coming from, but felt that vague twinge every parent hates, knowing that your child hurts in a place that seems just beyond your reach. ``I know, Dad. I know. But still,'' he replied.

I realized that there was probably nothing I could say to completely dispel his anxiety. And I knew there was no point in telling him that second grade won't be hard and that third grade won't be even harder. They will. All I know is that it is his job to become his own teacher and that all of the hardness of school will only begin to make sense and be welcomed when that happens, when learning becomes a deeply personal adventure, however ``hard.''

So I said to my son, ``I believe in you. I don't know what's going to happen in school, but I believe in you.''

``You do?'' he said.

``Yes, Jeremy, I do.''

That is the message I began to get that summer at camp from a writer I did not know who believed enough in me, his reader, to tell a simple story and to let me find my own story therein, to even begin to realize that I had a story of my own to find. My education was just beginning, for ``education'' means simply and originally to ``draw out.'' And I know there is so much to draw out in my son, and that inner work is his to do alone, with the tools that we will try to give him now and the tools he will have to find for himself, more and more, as the years pass.

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