Today is National Book Lover’s Day. That’s every day for me, but in the name of community and comeraderie and all that jazz, I’m going to tell you about my, quote, favourite book. I say that because if asked by a hundred different people what my favourite book was, I would give a hundred different answers. Depending on my mood or my audience or the subject of the conversation that resulted in that question, I run through my mental library and land on different significant books. The one at the top of the list though, is the one I save for very special occasions. That is the one I am going to tell you about.
Miss Depiro was my grade 12 English teacher. She was shorter than me (I barely scrape 5′) with a salt and pepper Dorothy Hamill haircut and thick Woody Allen-esque glasses that magnified her steely eyes. Her classroom was at the end of a long corridor on the 3rd floor, making it virtually impossible to get to in the short gap between classes. More often than not, I would run down the hall to be met with a group of panting classmates arguing quietly about who would knock on the heavy oak door to get in. And also more often than not, it would end up being me. I was a postmodern punk clad in head-to-toe black with a practised resting hostile face that gave the impression I didn’t give a damn about much. To be honest, it did take more than Miss Depiro’s magnifying glass eyes to scare me, but really, I wanted to get in. Miss Depiro was a good teacher and I was interested in what she was teaching us.
Sometimes I would knock and she would open the door and let us all in, sometimes she would open it and send us to the office, sometimes that door would just stay right where it was. On one of those days, when we were shut out of learning, I watched my cohort have a half-hearted discussion about what to do, as I pulled a book out of my bag. They tried to get me to knock again, but instead I found a comfortable spot on the floor to read while everyone shrugged and dispersed. The corridor was quiet. I like(d) quiet.
When a few chapters had gone by, the door opened and Miss Depiro came out. She appeared to be heading to the washroom, but stumbled over me instead. She looked down at me with a confusion that seemed completely unwarranted, I mean she locked me out after all.
“What is that?” She pointed at my book.
“The Catcher In The Rye,” I said holding up the cover so she could see I was telling the truth.
“Oh for the love of God,” she said grabbing it from me. “Get up. Get up right now.” She grabbed my shoulder and heaved me awkwardly upward before pinching my elbow in between her thumb and forefinger and guiding me brusquely into her classroom and to her desk. It should be said that this was a Catholic high school. As I was being manhandled past images of saints I was trying to decide if this book was on a blacklist of some kind. I had no clue if Salinger was on the Pope’s no fly list and it suddenly occurred to me that I was likely unintentionally in possession of contraband and there was a good chance I was about to be expelled, or excommunicated, or I had no idea what. Miss Depiro deposited me into her desk and told me to stay before leaving again. The rest of the class tried not to look, but whispers rippled through the room. The bell rang before she got back. The class shuffled out, but I stayed.
When Miss Depiro came back she pulled up a plastic chair and sat across from me. “Why are you reading that?” she asked.
I stammered. “I uh…”
“Is it good? Well written?”
“Are you reading it because it speaks to you or because it speaks to what you want people think of you?”
My face flushed. She was right.
“You’re better than that,” she said throwing the book in her drawer and heaving it closed. She got up and pulled a book from one of the shelves that lined the back wall and handed it to me.
The Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munro.
“Go,” Miss Depiro said.
I didn’t realize it in the moment, but that day, that book, and Miss Depiro changed everything for me.
At first it seemed incongruous. It looked like a book my mother would read. Something I might find in her bedside table stacked with old copies Women’s Day magazine and some Maeve Binchy paperbacks. My mother may have read it, I don’t know to be honest, but it really doesn’t matter. The Lives of Girls and Women is a short story collection disguised as a novel. It centres around Del Jordan, an outcast in every sense of the word. Poor and smart with an eccentric family and unconventional upbringing, she is a misfit in all aspects of her life. She doesn’t fit in her family or in the social circles of her small town. I don’t know that I need to spell this out for you, but I felt connected to Del from the word go. This book spoke to me in a deeply personal way, and moreover it made me understand that great literature, great writing, does that. And The Lives of Girls and Women made me understand that while reading is a way to explore the lives of others, to challenge our own experience and understanding of the world, the most impactful reading happens when you can be intimate with the characters, when you can truly put yourself in a character’s shoes and hope for them and for you that they will be better, do better, than you. When the writer leaves room for you read yourself into a story, that story resonates. It becomes part of your own experience. It changes you.
The Lives of Girls and Women changed me. Alice Munro, through Del, showed me that I wasn’t alone in my misfit-ness. She showed me it was good to be smart and creative and to not fit in. She showed me I was going to get confused by people and by life, I would make mistakes and be embarrassed, I would look back at things that I had seen and done and would sigh and cry and laugh and that it was ok because it’s life and life is a bit cringe-y. She showed me that there was no point in measuring myself in the expectations of others. She showed me that I just needed to keep moving to my own beat in my own way.
I never told Miss Depiro what she did that day. In fact, after that class finished I never saw her again. But I hope she knows. I hope she’s retired and hanging out on a beach somewhere with a self-satisfied grin on her face and a copy of The Lives of Girls and Women in her bag waiting to give it to someone who needs it.