The e-newsletter Shelf Awareness occasionally includes author interviews where a standard question is “What book have you faked reading?” This brought to mind something I can tell now because I don’t think they can take my high school diploma back from me.
When we students who began school in the first half of the 20th Century in Portales, New Mexico entered Junior High in 1957, they explained a lot of what we had to get done during the next few years if we wanted to graduate from high school. If those years passed and we hadn’t done each thing on the list we’d be pumping gas the remainder of our lives.
Among the various academic requirements was Major Book Report every year. I didn’t see this as a problem up front. I was a heavy reader and couldn’t imagine a deadline arriving on that one without me nailing it in plenty of time.
But somehow the 8th or 9th grade came along and spang, there I was, with Mrs. Wilbanks standing before the class announcing day-after-tomorrow our big book reports were due. Suddenly I was in a panic. I’d read plenty of books, but none that came to mind as qualifying for a big book report. Those normally had to be cleared with the teacher ahead of time, which somehow slipped by me for one reason or another.
I don’t know what made me decide to invent a book that didn’t exist. It seems insane all these decades later. But I suppose I concluded I just hadn’t read any Big Books after I went to the library and saw the lists of the ones other kids had been thumbing through and dogearing.
But I got out my Esterbrook fountain pen with the turquoise ink and set to work inventing a Big Book I’d read. “Chessman”, by Borden Deal . It was a good book and I regret Borden Deal never wrote it. I turned in the book report on time and sighed thinking I’d cheated death one more time.
A few days later Mrs. Wilbanks brought the graded book reports in and prepared to pass them back, but she cautioned us to just look at the grades and corrections, then hand them back in. They’d go into our permanent files with our other Big Book Reports until we graduated High School.
Then she pulled out a book report from the stack I could recognize from my desk near the back of the room. Sloppy, turquoise handwriting on yellow paper.
“I don’t give A+ on Big Book Rep0rts, but I’ve made an exception this time.” She lighted up the room with her smile and gestured toward me with it while I sank into my seat. “I believe this might be the best Big Book Report ever written by one of my students.”
Knowing that book report was up there hanging over my head as evidence bothered me a lot. When I left Portales and headed for another school my 11th year, I hoped they’d let me carry my records so I could snag it, but it wasn’t to be. Next year I changed schools again and again didn’t get an opportunity to steal it back.
Not until I graduated in 1961 did I again get my hands on my Big Book Report on “Chessman”, by Borden Deal. I packed it away with all my other important papers and kept it until Y2K, when it went into the fire after one last read.
If you haven’t read the book I recommend you write it. It’s a winner.