Sunday, January 29, 2023

“Sanctuary” by Susan Bédard

“Teach me to read,” I begged my teacher mother. “

“Yeah, teach her,” dad said.

“No, she’s too young. She’ll be bored when school starts if she can read already.”

The highlight of each week in my young life was going to the public library with my mom and siblings. Usually, when others came to visit or we were away from home I would hide behind my parents or peer cautiously around a doorframe. Visits to the one-story brick building that housed the library were different. There were other people there but we all knew that this was a place of peace and quiet. Maybe that’s what made it a sanctuary for me. It was a far cry from the noisy confusion when hordes of relatives would periodically descend on our farm and much less confusing than trying to keep track of dad at the co-op or mom at the local department store.

In the library we left the real world outside to enter an enchanted world. Once the doors swished closed behind us the magic began. I tilted my head up to watch the dusty motes of sunlight stream through the window. It was set high above the bookshelves showcasing rows of books of all sizes and colours that my four-year-old eyes found miraculous. I crouched in a corner to peek more closely at the pictures and mysterious letters, their secret treasures igniting my imagination.

Picture books fascinated me. Giraffes and hippos in dusty savannahs contrasted with seals and polar bears on glaring ice packs. My hunger to learn to read grew. Chapter books with all those letters waited to be unravelled into words and sentences and stories of far-off places and adventures.

Every week we lugged piles of books to the front desk and plopped them in front of the librarian. She whipped open each cover, pulled out the card and stamped it with the due date. The smack and thump of the rubber stamp hitting the ink-soaked pad then the paper was the loudest sound in the building.

At home again, I pointed to the pictures and words as mom read to us from the library books. I desperately wanted to be able to read for myself.

Grade one finally arrived. Now I could learn to read. Another first grader Michael, and I walked the dirt road between fields and woods to get to the town school. It was fun to swing our lunch bags and poke sticks at the grasses waving along the path. Once we surprised a turkey hiding in the fencerow into frightening flight. Learning with others the same age proved tiring but fulfilling.

Two months later, without warning, I was uprooted from my grade one world in town and thrust into despair at the two-room school in the village. The noisy yellow bus now picked me up. I lost Michael. I lost my nature walks. I lost my sense of comfort and security. I cried. All morning, every morning in those first weeks, I cried. Labelled by teachers and students alike as a crybaby made me cry even more.

Gradually, the lure of learning to read began to win me over. I hunkered down at my desk and began to decipher the squiggles on pages into letters and words and sentences: 

See dog run. The dog chased the cat.

I had found my passion, the lens through which I could see and identify the world. I now knew how to read. There was no need to be continue to be teased by kids on the bus. There was certainly no need to go back to the two-room schoolhouse.

That afternoon I announced to my parents and siblings that I was done school because I could now read. My earnest statement did not meet with much success. They all just laughed. The next day, heartbroken, I was back in school.

Until grade three ended, the public library was my only library sanctuary. Books were available on shelves in the classrooms but once I had read them all, and I did, there was nothing else available. Grade four brought big changes. The two-room schoolhouse had been renovated to have classrooms for each grade up to grade six. Best of all, there was a library. My sanctuary space had expanded. I could safely hide between the stacks and find lots more to read during those increasingly boring classes. 

The teacher tried to pin the label “retarded” on me. Testing resulted in the diagnosis: “She’s reading at a grade twelve level. She’s just bored.” That year I began to fine-tune how to tune out lessons and classmates while reading a book tucked into the shelf under my desktop. I didn’t get caught most of the time.

By grade six I was scrunched down behind my desk, so bored with the lessons but continuously reading, reading, reading. My new name, bookworm, was given by teachers and students alike. It only increased my desire to burrow through written material of all kinds. I gobbled up books, magazines and newspapers, cereal boxes, encyclopedias and dictionaries.

I missed most of my own birthday party that year. Someone made the mistake of gifting a book to me before the party was over. I managed to distance myself from the rest of my guests at an outdoor skating party in February. Mom found me curled up in a nest of straw in a wooden calf hutch near the skating area, happily engrossed in the antics of the fictional characters of my new book while the real characters of my life laughed and slid all around me. Shamed into abandoning the gift to rejoin the party brought tears from me and knowing looks from the guests. Crybaby and bookworm.

I finished the book later that night. Sanctuary was between the pages.


Susan Bédard lives in Listowel, Ontario, with her husband and mom. Mom to three adult children and newly retired, she loves connecting with her first grandchild, reading, nature, travelling and exploring all forms of creative writing.

See Brian Henry’s upcoming weekly writing classes, one-day workshops, and weekend retreats here.

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