Like most people my age, I discovered Ray Bradbury in high school. It was Mr. Beckman’s English class, to be precise, at Pacific High School, Port Orford, Oregon. My freshman class of 75 kids was the largest in school history, with a graduating class of around 40. The mill closed that year and fishing started to go belly up. A lot of people moved.
We each got a little stack of books at the beginning of the year to read and discuss and, to this day, the only one I really remember is Fahrenheit 451. I fanned them out, like a thick deck of cards, and plucked the one book that looked most different and put it on top. I’d heard of the others, maybe Animal Farm was in that pile? So anything I hadn’t heard of was really exciting. Especially since it was science fiction! Who knew that going to high school meant that we’d get to read, get assigned and so HAVE to read, science fiction?
I sat pretty close to the front of the class and Mr. Beckman suggested that I not start reading just yet. He wanted to fill us in on what we’d be doing this year, first. During class he asked that we not read more than the assigned pages so we could all be at the same point for discussion.
By lunch I was already well ahead of where I was supposed to be and had absolutely no intention of stopping. I don’t think I could have stopped. I was pulled through the book one word at a time, page after page. It took me over and removed my will to close the cover. I read in the halls between classes, took it with me to the restroom, read on the bus, at dinner, a few minutes here, there, and then in bed. I think this may have been the first time I questioned authority (okay, it was a small thing, but it was the FIRST thing). I finished it that night and had to confess the next day.
Mr. Beckman was a forward-thinking teacher and he had to know I wouldn’t be able to wait out each assignment; there had to have been others like me who just had to see what happened next. I reread the assigned sections every day, with intense pleasure and joy.
That lovely little white paperback changed my life. I checked out every single Bradbury book in our school library and devoured them. The ones the school didn’t have, I found in our pink cinder block public library. I searched the grocery store racks and garage sales for any that I could own, that I could afford; I wanted them next to my little twin bed on the bedside table so I could reach out and touch them, experience other ways of thinking and living, whenever I wanted.
Beyond the basic lure of traveling to other planets and into outer space, he opened and showed me how to travel the inner spaces of my heart and mind and very complicated and scary teenage life. Martian, human, evil Veldt and Venus children, we all have the same longings, urges, fears and loneliness, and his books made the whole, wide universe available to us. He gave meaning to the feelings I had no words for then and led me to realize how very human I am, how very normal.
I realize now that I never questioned whether these books were fantasy. They seemed more like maps to the future, a place where we’d all be “dark, and golden-eyed,” living on Mars or in Illinois, watching our long shadows grow longer in the low-lit afternoon sun, the beckoning sound of a carousel quiet in the air.
René Kirkpatrick has slung books at the University of Oregon Bookstore in Eugene and All for Kids Books & Music (now closed) and Third Place Books in Seattle. Her favorite genres are books for children and teens, and she blogs about them at www.notesfromthebedsidetable.blogspot.com.