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Books’ great beginnings

In 2004 during our weekly visits to the school library, many of the female students in my third-grade class were inclined to check out books about princesses, fairies and cute puppies. Meanwhile, their classmate Thania Torres searched the shelves for books about anatomy. She shared with me every fascinating fact she discovered about the human body. At the ripe old age of 8, Thania was already certain that one day she wanted to be a doctor.

A decade later, I opened the Hood River News to read about my former student. Now a senior in high school, Thania was recently named as the local Elks Club’s “Student of the Month.” Not surprisingly, she is currently taking classes in calculus and medical biology. She volunteers in the emergency room at the hospital. She plans to go to college and major in — pre-med.

It’s also not surprising that she volunteers throughout the community. Thania was always offering to help in my classroom, and her mother was one of my most reliable parent volunteers.

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Over 50 years ago, another young girl discovered the wonders of the local library, but her infatuation with that place, filled with facts and stories, was almost derailed by a long name.

In the early 1960s, a child could only check out books from our town’s library if she could write her full name — no nicknames allowed. I had mastered “Peggy” in preschool, but the three syllables in “Margaret” proved to be more daunting. Finally, after a few weeks of practice, I signed “Margaret Ruth Dills” to the official form, and began bringing home stacks of books.

My love affair with reading has never ceased, and my gratitude for our free library system is deep. April 13-19 is National Library Week, and this year’s honorary chairperson is Judy Blume. I’m too old to have read Blume’s books as a child, but I devoured them as an employee at Waucoma Bookstore. Her stories for younger children as well as adolescents are funny, honest, and relatable to the reader, quite like a favorite author of my generation, Oregon’s own Beverly Cleary.

Many years ago, as a bookstore employee, I had the great good fortune to visit Judy Blume at her home in New York City. At the time, she was one of the “rock stars” of children’s literature. Despite her fame, I found her to be approachable and humble. While we visited with her over a cup of tea, she shared letters from adoring fans. It was evident that their stories were as meaningful to her as her stories were to them.

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My husband and I recently spent some time in Prineville, Ore. While there, we visited the local history museum. In the museum bookstore, we searched for Dorothy Lawson McCall’s memoir of life in Prineville, “Ranch Under the Rimrock.” There were no copies for sale at the museum or at the local bookstore.

While visiting Prineville we had hoped to find the McCall ranch (home to Oregon’s former governor Tom McCall, son of Dorothy) and searched the Internet for information and directions. Alas, we left Central Oregon without the book or a glimpse of the ranch.

Back home in Hood River, I stopped by our library. Four copies of “Ranch Under the Rimrock” sat on the shelf, available to check out for free. My life this week was made richer by reading about this fascinating family.

Stories do make all of our lives richer, and stories about reading are sometimes the best.

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I began my belated career as an elementary school teacher assigned to kindergarten. I had 50 students a day; 25 in the morning and 25 in the afternoon. They say what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. At 47 years of age, kindergarten almost did me in. I survived by being charmed; 5-year-olds are often unruly and exasperating, but they are also charming.

One of my favorite memories of that year teaching kindergarten involves Lalo, an active little boy who loved to listen to stories on tape. He would set himself down in the listening center, put on the earphones, and settle into a story.

One day, I noticed he had invited a friend to listen along with him. This friend, made of synthetic fur, was one of our class’s stuffed animals. Lalo carefully placed earphones on the animal’s ears, and together they sat down to enjoy a good book.

Today, Lalo is a tall sophomore in high school. He just returned from a trip to France with his high school French teacher. He has a driver’s license! How he grew so old while I stayed the same is amazing to me.

He has a little brother who is in first grade at my school. I hope Lalo shares his love of stories with his little brother. I can just imagine them, ear buds in place, listening to a good story on an iPod. Better yet, hopefully Lalo has visited our wonderful school and public libraries with Jesus. After all, as “Mental Floss” magazine notes: “Libraries — a great place to get checked out.”

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When I feel discouraged about being a teacher, reading about my former students’ successes is a great balm. Two students have recently been recognized in this newspaper for their artistic accomplishments. Gisela Ayala received a national award for her lovely photographs; Alonso Magaña’s design was selected for this year’s “Hood River County Reads” poster. Congratulations to them both.

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