A big world in small type

Friday, February 2, 2007

I have often said that I took my first newspaper job more than 40 years ago because of a Jersey milk cow named Lulu.

That is not entirely true.

Lulu was the resident milk cow on the Killough Valley farm where I grew up in the Ozark hills over yonder. I was the resident milker. It was an unsatisfactory arrangement, on the whole.

At some point during my high school years, I figured out that if I wanted a job that wasn't on a farm, I'd have a better chance with a college degree. So off to college I went.

But Lulu isn't the only reason. That warm, brown cow with the big udders didn't teach me much that would help on the ACT. My performance on that test, which I took in Academic Hall at what was then Southeast Missouri State Teachers College, along with another statewide standardized test earned me a full scholarship to the University of Missouri. So, naturally, I went somewhere else, a private school that offered only a modest bit of financial aid.

One of the reasons I did well on these tests is because I was privileged to have a sound education provided by excellent teachers. My first seven years were spent in one-room schools with eight grades.

The first library I ever saw was in the back of Shady Nook School. It was a large cabinet whose doors could be locked, once upon a time. The five or six shelves of the cabinet were crammed with books, many of them older than my parents. The bottom shelf was occupied by a fairly complete encyclopedia.

If you've never attended a one-room school, let me describe how it worked.

Most teachers taught pairs of classes. Seventh- and eighth-graders, for example, would come up by the teacher's desk for English or math or geography. While those students were talking about subjects and predicates and long division and how to find Istanbul on a globe with most of eastern Asia peeling off, the rest of the students were supposed to be doing their own homework and reading assignments. But you couldn't help overhearing everything all the other classes were being taught. We were all exposed to all eight grades of education every year.

For me, the books in the cabinet were passports to a world where not a single person knew a milk cow named Lulu. The people I met in these books explored raging rivers, fought battles, flew across oceans and found love in ancient cities that were older than God. Well, older than Jesus.

By the time I left Shady Nook School, I had read all the books in the cabinet, including the tattered volumes of the encyclopedia.

That's when my mother got me my first library card, my ticket to what seemed like an endless supply of books, some of them quite new, at the public library in my favorite hometown.

As I recall, Mrs. Berryman was the librarian, and she carefully pointed me to the juvenile books. I checked out eight or nine books at a time, because we only went to town once a week. After I read all the juvenile books, I wandered over to the adult fiction. Mrs. Berryman took me by the arm and shooed me back to the kid books. My mother intervened, convincing the librarian that I could be trusted to read adult fiction without being corrupted. I suspect Mrs. Berryman, like Socrates, didn't relish sipping hemlock.

I was lured to the public library by the sheer joy of reading. There are a good many youngsters today who have that same desire to know more, to see what's on the next page, to learn things you didn't know you needed to learn. They make good use of the public library and their school library.

But what about those students who, for whatever reasons, don't know about the adventure of reading?

In my life so far, I have enjoyed, thanks to the written word, riches that cannot be measured. I am willing to share a few cents a day in the hope that others might be drawn to a modern library and discover the world.

Perhaps there is a child who has always lived in the city and dreams of becoming a farmer. There are books about that too.

Look under "Lulu."

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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