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Eminent Domain

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WHEN I WAS FIVE years old, I desperately wanted to learn how to read.

Part of this need was due to the house in which my family lived - an ancient lath-and-plaster construction my parents obtained when the State of Ohio declared eminent domain over a portion of land in Stark County, and then ripped an interstate through it, a space where houses once stood. These houses were free to anyone who filled out the red tape and agreed to pay the cost of transporting them.

Over the years of my childhood, my father added several additions, using inexpensive materials. The hub of our home was a large rectangular room that connected seamlessly to the large kitchen, giving the main part of the home the shape of an L with no barriers between them - one could wash dishes at the far end of the kitchen and see directly to the far end of the living room. The living room was lit by fluorescent lights bulbs running along the ceiling with rudely constructed paneled shields protecting the eyes from direct exposure to the bulbs. One thing it had going for it - the lighting lacked all subtlety.

A bit like our family - even within the warmth of our conservative Mennonite community, we had the energy of a blazing coal. Just living under the same roof with my family made it difficult to enjoy the solitude I thought I craved. Quiet as a library is not a description that applied to my family home. My brothers and sisters fought, laughed, screamed, cried, and argued. Any story you've heard about the reserved nature of Mennonites didn't apply. You had to be loud in my family - just to be heard.

Today, as I try to recall which of my family were introverted, it dawns on me that I must have been the closest thing to an introvert that my parents made. So I discovered two forms of retreat. The first was inside my head. I decided that I needed to learn how to read - fast and early - probably because I was desperate to find a place of retreat. After I learned how to read, I would be able to hide behind a book. My family respected reading, and there's a reason why reading is considered an anti-social activity - because it's anti-social. The second form of retreat was physical - the quietest place in the house was in the basement, where a large coal furnace spread its black, ubiquitous dust over broken toasters, wringer washing machines, and tables of half-folded clothes. My siblings didn't spend much time there, and in my pre-teen and early teen years, I would drive my bike home with a six-pack of soda and the books I had selected from the Hartville Library. I could burrow into a secret space, crack open an A & W Root Beer, and read in peace. Even today, I find solace while reading in restaurants, the smell of food from the nearby oven or grill, the cold outside and the warmth inside as I forage through the new world I've just discovered inside my latest book. It brings me back to childhood times.

BUT AT FIVE YEARS old, I could not read. I had to wait to read until first grade. My family didn't even believe in kindergarten. To top it off, my family had no radio or television. There were no afternoons at the movie theatre. All this was considered worldly in our Conservative Mennonite home. All I could do was listen to others tell me stories. My father tried. After a long day of working at Schumacher Lumber Company, he would come to the bedroom that I shared with my brothers, all of us lying in bed listening intently in the dark as he spun out the biblical tales -David the Shepherd Boy facing down a Giant with only a slingshot, or Jonah being swallowed by a big fish - with the Almighty getting personally involved in each story. To the sound of my father's voice, I saw God flood the world, saving his servant Noah, his family, and an entire zoo of animals on a giant ship he made in his backyard. When Joshua needed help on the battlefield, God stopped the sun from going around the earth. Snap. Just like that. And later, God fed an entire multitude of hungry, hungry, hungry people with a little boy's meal of bread and fish that just kept giving. This ritual went on long after I turned five years old, of course - but I never appreciated the stories as much once I learned to read and became more independent.

My most powerful memory of this story ritual occurred during a summer when my mother was very pregnant with one of my younger siblings - I think it was my youngest sister, Heidi. My father's sister Martha - an English teacher who was still single and lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with her mother - came to Ohio to assist my mother with the housework during the last few weeks of pregnancy. On long summer afternoons, probably to keep us all quiet so that my mother could nap, Aunt Martha would read to all of us outside on the porch from Charlotte's Web by E.B. White. We all listened, fascinated, as Charlotte the Spider strategized, trying to figure out a way to save her friend Wilbur the Pig. Charlotte used words that she spun in her web to save her friend from the butcher's knives. I never wanted her to stop. And I couldn't read ahead to find out what was going to happen, because when my aunt decided that it was time to stop, that was it, and it was too bad. I couldn't sneak the book off the shelf, because I couldn't read, and so I had to wait until the next day to find out whether Wilbur would live or die. I've never liked that feeling - not then, and not now.

Was it control that I longed for? Control over the stories that I heard? Or perhaps it was a burning desire to read the stories for myself and see if my father and the other adults were right?

AS THE END OF THE summer of 1969 approached, I grew excited, bragging to my older sisters about how fast I was going to learn how to read once I got to school. That is, until one of my sisters explained to me the way things worked. The State of Ohio had a cutoff date - I was a September baby, and so it was possible, just possible, that I might not be old enough to go.

I was horrified, devastated, terrified - there was a chance I wouldn't get to go to school this year? I was going to be six years old, and everyone went to school when they were six. I thought at first that my sisters were kidding me. But they weren't, as I found out when I went to my mother.

"We'll see, Steven," she said.

We'll see? What kind of answer was that? My life hung in the balance - if I didn't get to go to school this year, my life would be changed - and not for the better. I decided that anything other than acceptance into first grade that year was unacceptable. Where I got my determination is still a mystery - but I can trace my powerful love for education to this point in time.

I wanted to learn how to read books by myself - to control when and where I entered or left that world where pigs spoke to spiders. How many conversations did I have with my mother about this? I don't know. But somewhere along the way, my mother talked to Edna Sommers, the first-grade teacher at Hartville Christian School, where my three sisters already attended.

Edna Sommers had been teaching first grade for years. A beautiful woman who had somehow never met a man who could interest her more than the classroom, Edna had committed her life to teaching children how to read and write and add and subtract. Her faith was shiny and clean, its complexity structuring her life like the girders and cables of a suspension bridge. When students left her classroom, they performed well on the Stanford Achievement Test. They had also become acquainted with her God. My mother knew that Sister Sommers would know what to do about her oldest son.

My mother was not my ally in this battle. No matter how much I argued with her, she was convinced that I was growing up too fast. And now I was going to go off to school, her tiny firstborn son? Behind her stern face loomed the State of Ohio and its laws. How could I at the age of six have understood the heart of my mother, who watched me approaching first grade with all the fear and knowledge of my nature all wrapped together as we hurtled together down the railroad of Time?

IF YOU HAD APPROACHED Hartville Christian School in the Summer of 1969 by helicopter, you would have seen a squat building, its flat roof running north to where it jumped up to include the second story of the high school side of the building. The length of the building ran parallel to Market Avenue. A long, graveled lane stretched east and west from the building to the road. A gigantic field lay on the south side of the lane in front of the school, and on the other side, a church parking lot leading back to a garage and a field behind that.

To the south of the building was a small playground - ridged by fields and guarded by sentinel trees that leaned over it as if ensuring the safety of its small inhabitants, of which I would soon be the tiniest - if I were accepted as a first-grade student. Along the playground's edges were the bright yellow merry-go-round and teeter-totters, all watched over by the giant swing set that established the eastern edge of this world. The playground itself was gravel, and on the days when the Ohio gods of weather decided to be kind, I would have to learn the game of softball from scratch, trying to hit the ball for the first time in my life after being chosen dead last in the lineup of stars.

On the west side of the playground was the cracked and discolored concrete floor of the basketball court where the older kids played, their giant bodies a threatening presence to me when I sat small and wide-eyed beside my sister on the way home from school in the huge yellow bus. South of the court was a volleyball net and a tetherball pole. Beyond the pole was the green lawn that eventually confronted a raised, concrete rectangle. There, a septic system once spoke to me when I drifted over on a spring day to look down through its steel grate.

To the west of the court and the lawn lay a gigantic field - the tall grass shielded Creatures of the Night that crept onto the playground, hopping and twisting about. Even then, I knew that they consumed little children stupid enough to get lost after church services and wander back here in the moonlight.

AS MY FATHER'S CAR drove in the lane of the school that August day, it kicked up massive clouds of dust, who seemed to question my right to enter its sacred grounds. We pulled up in front of the building, and my mother helped me out of the back door of the station wagon.

I looked at the building. So big. My mother took my hand and led me from the parking lot through the glass and steel doors. We found ourselves in a long hallway leading to a blinding door of windows at the other end. We marched down the hall past a classroom door on the left. Inside was a large man with reddish brown hair, sitting behind a massive desk, staring at a notebook, and holding a pen in his hand. We walked past another classroom door on the right where I could see a petite woman putting up decorations on the wall. We pushed on past a girls' bathroom door on the right, and then a boys' bathroom door as well. Suddenly, I saw before me an open door on the right, which framed an immense woman. I pulled my hand away from my mother. I stopped and looked up at her.

Sister Sommers' face was pleasant. Her dark hair swept back and up into a white bonnet that covered the back of her head, framed by white strings that hung down on each side at the back of her ears. There wasn't a hair out of place. Her dark green dress disguised her neatly organized figure, and the hem of the dress met her slim calves encased in dark hose. A belt the same color as her dress wrapped around her narrow waist. An extra sheet of cloth swept over her bust, disguising its shape. The smile on her face seemed professional, warm, and determined - all at once.
I met her eyes, and she smiled - a tight adjustment of her mouth that didn't reveal the mysterious teeth that must have lain beneath her thin lips.

"Hello. I'm Sister Sommers."

"Hi."

"Your name is Steven, isn't it?" I nodded, looking down and around at the just-waxed tile floors, brown and stained.

"I'm the first-grade teacher," Sister Sommers said, adjusting her lips again. "Your mother tells me you would like to take the entrance exam?" This was news to me, and I looked back at my mother, but she only smiled encouragingly. I looked back up at the Angel guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden. Sister Sommers didn't have a flaming sword like the story in the Bible. I peered past her. A long yardstick hung beside the chalkboard inside the classroom. A row of books lined the front of her desk. I looked back up at Sister Sommers, who stood waiting.

"Yes," I said.

My mother sat down in a chair across the hall from the doorway, and Sister Sommers gestured me inside. I went to a table with a small chair and a large chair on the other side of the room. I sat in the small chair. Around me was the smell of waxed floor and aged paper and the just-sharpened lead pencil on the table and the newly mown grass. The room was filled with light. Along the wall behind me was a row of windows - and outside was a distant field of tall grass and the sound of a buzzing mower.

I looked back to find my mother, but Sister Sommers was closing the door. She stood there for a moment, looking at me, and I looked down at the clean white of the table. Sister Sommers picked up an official set of documents and a pencil and came towards me, putting the test in front of me, making sure it lined up neat and straight with the edge of the table. She patted my shoulder gently as she sat down.

"I will be administering the test," she said.

"Is it hard?" I asked, finding my voice.

"You just do the best you can," she told me. "Any questions, just ask. Okay?"

I looked up into her face, and I saw the kindness in her eyes, and I thought of the way my mother had refused to look at me on the way here, and the way I saw her wipe her eyes as my father stopped the car and turned towards her when we first arrived.

SISTER SOMMERS MUST HAVE read my thoughts, because she patted me on the shoulder once again.

Then the test began. She pulled back the first sheet, and I looked at the shapes before me, and she pointed to each of them, letting me choose, never pushing me to hurry, happy to wait for me, no matter how long I took.

I sat beside her and listened to the sound of the clock ticking, and felt Sister Sommers' warmth, and I smelled the soapy, clean smell of her mixed in with the lead where I broke my pencil and had to wait while she got up and sharpened it and then came back to sit down beside me again, and she smiled at me, her mouth no longer just adjusting, but sometimes now with her white teeth showing, and she even laughed sometimes.

Much of the test was given to me verbally, although I had to draw things and point to answers. But whenever I looked up, my eyes met those of Sister Sommers, watching me quietly. Every time I looked up, she smiled the same smile, every time.

I had understood that Sister Sommers would be my teacher if I started school this year. In spite of her kindness, I worried that I might not pass the test. I wanted to read. I could not learn to read without her help. I knew that.

I stared at the sheet of paper in front of me. Sister Sommers didn't make a sound. I knew that if I looked up, she would be studying me. Like God, this woman knew everything, my reasons for wanting to read. And as the test went on, I somehow began to feel that she was on my side.

But my mother - what would she say? Even if I passed this test, would she agree to let me leave home and come to this paradise, where I could learn to read about pigs that talked to spiders, and spiders who created words out of silk? I decided that if I was allowed to come to school, I would learn to read the first day. Just in case they changed their minds and made me stay home after that.

The test took forever, but then it didn't, and Sister Sommers was putting it away, and then I was telling her about my dog Bootsy, who refused to come when I called "Here Bootsy." When I told her this story, Sister Sommers stopped what she was doing and came over and sat down beside me again. She listened to my every word as I told her about what it was like to go out on the road and find the dog who had barked at the kitchen door two days before, whining for food, and she seemed to know how it felt to stand there beside the road looking down at my friend's body all stretched out and stiff on the wet and shiny black road. "But it's all right," I told Sister Sommers. "Now Bootsy's in heaven."

Sister Sommers seemed to understand. And then she led me back to the classroom door, and my mother was there staring into a magazine, and she looked up very quickly when the door opened, searching the face of Sister Sommers, who told me to sit and wait in the chair where my mother had been sitting, and they both went inside the classroom and I was left in the hall to wait. The hallway was quiet, and I could hear their murmuring voices through the door. I thought about the test - the careful figures I had drawn, the choices I had made, the smile Sister Sommers gave me whenever I looked at her. I couldn't tell how I had done, but I knew that I had pleased the teacher.

I looked around. At the end of the hall, I saw a man floating in the air, and I went over to look through the door window and I saw that it was the man who mowed church lawn. He was seated on a riding mower close beside the school, and he looked up and saw me, and he waved at me, and I waved back.

I watched him for a minute, and then I turned and went back to my seat.

THE DOOR TO THE CLASSROOM opened, and Sister Sommers was standing there with her smile and kind eyes. I got up and went in to find my mother still sitting there. Sister Sommers gestured me to a seat beside my mother, and then she sat down. I looked at them. They looked at me. There was silence.

"Did I pass?" I asked. I could feel the moisture gather on my palms. My mother looked at Sister Sommers, who again smiled at her and then at me.

"You passed."

"Do I get to come to school?"

Sister Sommers didn't say anything. Instead, she looked at my mother, who was looking away, out the window. My mother's silence unnerved me. The battle was not over. Finally, my mother turned back to me. Her eyes were impossible for me to read. She had shut me out.

"We've decided to let you choose," my mother said.

I looked at her. This was not the way things worked. Adults made decisions. I could not decide something this important.

My mother sighed and got out of her chair. She knelt in front of me. Behind her, I saw Sister Sommers turn away. My mother reached out and tried to smooth my unruly hair, where my cowlick had sprung up again, in spite of the comb and water she had used. I looked down at my dark blue dress pants, and the wrinkled white shirt I had stuffed into my pants. The room suddenly felt too warm. I looked up to meet my mother's eyes.

"Steven, you did a good job on the test. This means that you can enter school this fall, except -"

She stopped and looked over at Sister Sommers. For a long moment, my mother held the steady gaze of my future teacher. Then she looked back at me.

"Except I'm worried about sending you this early."

I looked around me, seeing the shelves of books located along the side of the room, under the windows. The bulletin boards were already decorated with colorful leaves of fall and bright orange pumpkins and black pilgrim hats and colorful edging.

I looked back at my mother.

"It's up to you," she said.

I looked over at Sister Sommers, and she smiled again at me, this time a bright smile that created little crinkles under her eyes. I looked at her and then at my mother. And I nodded.

"Yes," I said. "I want to learn how to read."

And then my mother did an unusual thing. She reached out and took me in her arms. And as she hugged me tight, I felt her let me go.

TO MY DISAPPOINTMENT, I soon discovered that it would take me more than one day to learn how to read.

But by the time I thought about it again, I already knew how.