Lauren Leto – The Justice League of Ex-Teachers of Mine

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The first book I ever loved was a book about a monster in a child’s closet. I had a hard time learning how to read when I was in first grade. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the fields of letters, the spaces, the punctuation. I have a clear memory, however, of being brought into the hallway one day by my teacher. She opened a book and walked me through, slowly, how to string everything together and follow, sentence by sentence, a cohesive story. And it was a garish story. The kind of story that children’s book authors seem pathologically drawn to: a kid is utterly terrified by a monster, who, inexplicably—when the kid finally tries to talk to the monster —turns out to be friendly. Easy enough, I thought, and continued on rereading that same book every day for the rest of first grade.

In second grade, lightning struck when my teacher told me I was good at reading. If you tell an eight year old she has a talent for something, she’ll never give it a rest; you tell her, “Oh, you’re funny!” and the child will keep making raspberries and pretending to be a monkey until you want to rip her arms out. You say, “Wow! You’re pretty good at basketball,” and it will end in tears as you finally pull him by his hair off the court. Tell her, “Hey! You’re a great singer!” and you’re in for it—you’ll get a flouncing bundle emitting unbridled music-like monstrosities which you’ll have to stab in the heart before it’ll be quiet ever again.

My astute parents had up to this point avoided telling me I was good at anything. Our nightly dinners were spent reinforcing the message “It’s not funny” to my brother, for good measure repeatedly reminding my sister she should “stop drawing everywhere,” and me, my directive was to “stop imagining things”. But Mr. Booker, that unwitting man, complimented me one day on my reading skills. It was all downhill from there. When my parents figured out what the teacher had done, they marched into the principal’s office to complain. “She does nothing but read!” “She has no friends!” “Her nose is always in a book!” Meeting only silence and bewilderment there, they picketed the PTO: “It can’t be healthy! Reading all the time!” “What if she needs glasses someday?! Boys don’t make passes on girls who wear glasses!”

Unfortunately for them, I had been told I was good at reading and I was not going to stop. I read in my closet with all the lights off and nothing but a flashlight, finally coming out only after my mom had, in an abrupt state of panic, called the police. I read in the bathtub. In the process I used up all the hot water because a leaky drain necessitated that the water be left running for the tub to stay full. My brother and sister have taken years of ice cold showers because I couldn’t put down anything from Animorphs to Nabokov (I still do this--they’ve asked me to stop coming home for the holidays). “Go outside and make some friends,” my mom would sigh. I’d try to please her by rollerblading in a circle in our driveway, while reading. Unsurprisingly I didn’t make many friends that way. I refused to ride my bike to school because there was no way to read while biking. Instead I’d walk in an ambling fashion with my face in a book, resulting not once, but twice, in me somehow arriving home with only one shoe on. “This needs to stop! You have a problem!” my father cried. He sent me to summer camps to straighten me out but I’d hide contraband in my suitcase and spend the week away from home in Narnia.

Teachers in subsequent grades would complain to Mr. Booker, that innocent man, “If you had just kept your mouth shut she’d be listening in class instead of hiding her face behind a book!” They quickly banded together, the Justice League of Ex-Teachers of Mine, in order to throw a side-eye at anyone who dared encourage children, lest they turn out like me. They met every Monday morning, to start the week off right, in the Teacher’s Lounge. The password to get in was “mediocre”—a key element of their mission statement: “keep them mediocre, keep our jobs easy”. They’d sit and stew in there. “I’ve run out of stickers to put on her reading chart. This child is a drain on the system, my sticker budget has run dry!” They’d join my parents at the PTO picket. “Sticker Hog!” their signs cried out.

By the time I was in high school, the attendance list had grown so large they had to move the meetings to the gym. “Hi, I’m Ms. Washington and I was Lauren’s teacher in tenth grade. One time, I had to send her home because she was crying about losing her annotated copy of Catch-22. Children shouldn’t have to miss class because they’re sad about a book. It’s disgusting and subversive.” “Hi, I’m Mr. Young and I was Lauren’s teacher in ninth grade. Once, she turned in what was supposed to be a book report but instead amounted to a terrifyingly detailed account of J.D. Salinger’s life. I am sincerely worried she might be stalking him.” “I’m Mr. Montague and I was Lauren’s twelfth grade teacher. I was unable to get her to stop laughing when Lear’s Earl of Gloucester dives off the cliff. It confused the other students and I had to give her detention.”

Upon graduation, no one was sad to see me go. “She’s somebody else’s problem now!” “I bet she doesn’t finish college, she’ll be too busy reading.” “You can’t while away all your time reading in college!”

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