Book Reports: Eighth Grade


Ok, so, I went to a private Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade. My favorite class was always English, and its permutations – Literature, Language Arts, etc. I could diagram a sentence in 20 seconds. My spelling was on point. My vocabulary was HUGE. (Just ask my fourth grade teacher. She gave me a low grade in Language Arts because, and I quote, “Sara often uses words she doesn’t know the meaning of.” Which is utter. Total. Complete. Bullshit. She never asked me if I knew the meaning of those words, and I was using them correctly. But I digress.)

In the eighth grade, we did book reports. One per month. We had a class period in the school library where you picked your book and then told the teacher the title. I suppose this was so you didn’t repeat books from month to month, or read a little-kid board book. (I mean, who DOES that?? Who DOESN’T want to read a book?? I didn’t get it.)

The librarian was newish to the school. She took over when Mrs. Wolff, who was the sweetest woman, retired. The new librarian’s two kids went to our school and she was pretty cool. I don’t remember her name… We’ll call her Mrs. Smith.

I browsed the paperback rack of choose-your-own-adventures, classics like The Witch of Blackbird Pond and (my favorite, but I’d already read this for a prior report) Island of the Blue Dolphins. It was getting toward the end of the hour we had allotted to pick a book.

Finally, I grabbed a Judy Blume I hadn’t read and got in line to tell the teacher which book I’d chosen. After all, I’d read tons of Judy Blume. Tales a Fourth Grade Nothing, Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Blubber, The One in the Middle is the Green Kangaroo.

Here I should perhaps mention that I was not curious about bodies. Or sex. My mom explained how babies are made, sure, but I really didn’t feel the need to know any of the squishier details. We certainly  hadn’t yet watched the childbirth video that would traumatize the entire class for the next decade.

If you have never read Forever, Judy Blume’s take on teenage sexuality, well… (SPOILER ALERT) It’s about a high school girl who has sex for the first time with her boyfriend, then they break up because she meets a sexy tennis instructor and she wants to do sex with Mr. Tennis Balls, instead of the guy who calls his penis “Ralph.”


I was also really embarrassed.

But THIS was the book I’d chosen. And THIS was the book I would report on. I was too embarrassed to tell my teacher what had happened. I mean, it was a Catholic school. She would have TOTALLY let me pick another book on the basis that I should probably not be reading this anyway.

We filled out worksheets with open-ended questions on the book. I’ve never turned in such…blank assignment.

Q: “Write a description of the book.”

A: “Katherine is a teenager who has a relationship with Michael. They break up and she begins dating Theo.”

Q: “What was the central conflict of this book?”

A: “A girl struggles with growing pains.”

Q: “What are some of the themes?”

A: “Growing up. Relationships. Feelings.”

I got a C on the report. But I didn’t care. DID NOT CARE. Because I didn’t want to explain any further than I did. I just wanted to put this incident behind me.

A few weeks after that, I was back in the library, researching for a different assignment. I made some comment about being surprised that such a book would be in our school library. Mrs. Smith knew exactly what I was talking about. She replied, “Some authors get to be so big, their publishers let everything they write go to print.”

We had an understanding.

My dad was a big reader, and that’s where I got my love of books and reading. My mom is not much of a reader, and isn’t widely read, so they didn’t bat an eye when I read Lady Chatterley’s Lover in seventh grade. (I know, I know, you’re thinking: She was outraged at Forever but didn’t know what the fuss was about Lady Chatterley? All I can say is, I am large. I contain multitudes.)

Though at the time I was shocked that a book like Forever would be in my grade school library, I think in retrospect, I’m glad we weren’t censored in that way. I was allowed to read what I wanted to, above and beyond my grade level. And sometimes I was shocked or embarrassed or I just didn’t understand the context of the literature. But I learned how to read, really read, and understand. So thanks, Mrs. Smith, and Parents of mine. For giving me free reign.







100 Words: #3 Former Schoolteacher

     I taught school once. It was at a Catholic girls’ high school. That phrase alone should have warned me off the job from the start, but I was stubborn and love “Dead Poets Society.” In a word, it was hell. I found hell in the halls of a Catholic school. Couldn’t you just choke on the irony? The girls were actually not the problem. Even though they all drove nicer cars than I did, they all had fake fingernails (when did they start doing that?? WE didn’t do that…), they were brilliant, funny and awkward the way all teenagers are.

     I spent all my time thinking about school. I woke Husband up in the middle of the night, upset because I thought I hadn’t taught chivalry correctly. I couldn’t go to the movies without obsessing that I had 42 papers to read. I misunderstood the head of the department when she explained how midterms worked and therefore did not have a midterm ready for students when they walked in the classroom to take the test…I thought it was the next day. I spent too long on King Lear. I wanted the girls to think for themselves and not give me whatever would get them an A.


How disappointing.

The head of the department was a vile woman. At 34, she was already a spinster in Laura Ashley print dresses, helmet hair, and pursed lips. Her method of supporting me as a new teacher was to go over my lesson plans and tell me what was wrong with them. I did whatever she said. She said I was resistant to suggestion. I said I was frustrated but I was trying so hard. She never suggested that this would be my last year with this school. If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I fantasize about letting the air out of her tires or signing her up for the Adult Diapers of the Month Club, to be delivered to school.

I’ve never been fired from a job. In fact, you could actually say I wasn’t fired from this one, because their phrasing is, “We’ve decided not to renew your contract.” For someone who had good report with students, for someone who had high standards fitting of this school, for someone struggling in their first year of teaching, and someone who had good observation reports from other teachers…this was a complete surprise.

The first blow was the blindside. The second blow came later. “What on earth am I supposed to say to people next week? When they start asking what I’ll be teaching next year?” The principal, a former nun and very conservative Catholic, said, “Well, you can just tell them that you’ve decided not to come back next year.”

Did she just ask me to lie?

I left. I really left. I went home. The next day, Husband and another teacher cleared out my classroom. The principal sent me an email asking if there was anything she could do, so sorry it had to happen this way. The head of the English department left me a message asking to return some books, “which are the school’s property, not yours.” Vile woman, a pox on your head.

Since then, I’ve realized what a blessing this was. I am not destined to be a teacher. I am going to be a writer when I grow up. Though it was a crushing blow to fail so spectacularly, not a day has gone by that I do not thank God, the Universe and Everything that I’m not there anymore.

Bless you teachers. I’m just going to go write the stuff you can teach in your classrooms.