We had two reference books at home when my siblings and I were in elementary school. One was a massive dictionary, the other was a massive encyclopedia. These two volumes must have each cost my parents a small fortune, but they were invaluable. Together, the tomes probably weighed more than any one of us kids. We were all pretty scrawny, and it was impossible to lift one without great effort, so the books found a semi-permanent home at one end of the dining room table. When it was time to eat, my father would heft them off the table and set them on the floor, where they could have doubled as pieces of minimalist furniture.
Aside from lifting them, merely using the books could be a challenge. Because the publishers needed to fit so much information between the sturdy covers, they’d used ultra-thin paper. Young hands, turning pages quickly, were prone to tearing the paper. We tried to be careful, but more than once I flipped a page impatiently and was assigned the task of repairing the scar. This I enjoyed. I appreciated precision, imagined myself a surgeon, took some pains to align the skins together and suture them with shiny tape. Inevitably I’d mar the tape by creasing it or leaving ink on it. On more than one page a clear fingerprint could be seen, fastened in apparent perpetuity between the sticky side of the tape and the injured paper.
The fragility of the pages was insignificant compared to another challenge: the miniscule font size. How small could it have been? 8-point? 6-point? I don’t know, and the books are long gone. I do recall that although I had excellent eyesight, I’d have to lean over the book, bodily, and focus hard on the entry I was reading. I wasn’t a finger-follower, normally, when reading – it seemed a childish habit – but when using the dictionary or encyclopedia it was helpful to use a finger to indicate my place. Even so, I’d frequently lose focus, and instead of learning the definition of scion I might end up marveling that a word as delectable as scission existed.
I loved school, loved reading, loved writing, but I wasn’t the most patient of children. When I wanted to do something, I wanted to do it right then and with minimal hassle. If I had homework, which was often, I was 100% willing to sit down and do it without fuss. But what frustrated me, on a nearly minute-by-minute basis, was my mother’s insistence that I not rely on her help, or anyone’s help, to get the job done. A typical scene played out like this:
Me, sitting at the dining room table, pencil in hand, writing an essay about, say, dolphins.
My mother, busy, only half aware of what her kids were doing in other rooms. She may have been preparing dinner or reading a novel or writing out a grocery list.
“Mom, how do you spell ‘porpoise’?” I’d be tapping the pencil against my forehead and swinging my feet, happily anticipating an answer.
“Mom!” I’d pause.
“Hmm,” she’d murmur.
“How do you spell ‘porpoise’?” I’d repeat, pencil poised.
“Look it up,” she’d say.
At first – when she initially began using this phrase, likely when I was in kindergarten – I’d become exasperated. I’d try to reason or cajole her into properly answering me and, if that didn’t work, I wasn’t above whining, griping, and ultimately stomping my way to the dictionary. “This takes forEVER!” I’d sputter.
Ten minutes later, I’d try again. “What’s a mammal?” I’d ask, conveniently having forgotten the exchange we’d just had.
“Mammal! What’s the definition?”
At this point, my mother would relent, but only by the smallest of degrees. She’d come into the room and stand behind the relevant book. “Let’s look it up,” she’d say, often with an encouraging smile.
I knew, then, to abandon my immature attempts at manipulation. If my mother was willing to put in the effort, I figured, then I had to do the same. It was, after all, my homework.
In this manner, over time, over years, my mother conditioned us. We eventually understood that no matter how many times we asked what a word meant, or wanted to know some fact or figure that existed virtually at our fingertips, we could not simply fling our question at an adult and wait for the answer. We had to go to a reference book and look it up. We had to do it ourselves.
Flash forward several decades. I’m a college professor. My students are taking creative writing classes and, presumably, love to read, love to write. They are versions of my younger self, often, and we have many qualities in common. Not a single one of my students, however, was borne of my mother.
And so what happens, class after class, week after week, year after year, is that they arrive in the classroom having read the assignment and having prepared to discuss whatever essay or poem is at hand. They do so, often displaying great insight and empathy. The discussion might last half an hour, an hour, even longer. Many of them will put forth their ideas, sometimes a rousing debate ensues.
And then I’ll isolate a word or phrase, something that seems crucial to understanding the piece but oddly avoided in the conversation thus far. It might be a literary allusion or some specialized language – a musical term, for instance.
“What does ‘messa di voce’ mean?” I’ll ask. It’s the title of the essay we’ve been discussing.
A few students will shrug. One or two will look away, afraid I’ll catch their eye and expect an answer. One might say “no idea” or “never heard of it.”
“The title can be important, right?” I’ll prompt. A few will nod.
“Anybody look it up?”
Sometimes I get lucky. Sometimes a student has investigated the word or phrase; every so often there might be two, even three students who did. But generally, the response is a unanimous no.
“Well, what does it mean?” someone will ask, expectantly.
I smile. I think of my mother. I consider the combination of love and faith and regret and fear she must have felt when she encouraged us to take our educations as far as we could. My mother: a high-school graduate; a woman who had once dreamt of becoming a journalist; the person responsible for the books in the house, the typewriter under the Christmas tree, the library cards meted out as soon as we were old enough to write our own names.
“Look it up,” I say.