"What's that you're reading?" my English teacher asked.
I had thought I was alone. Certainly, I had turned on the lights, taken the classroom over for myself, and rearranged my corner of it. I'd chosen my seat from one of the standard thirty. Although it was a plastic, green student chair, it was a comfortable one, and I'd propped my feet on a desk to read.
Sometimes I arrived at the school early because I could drive. Sometimes I circled back late, when everyone had left. This time, I'd arrived an hour before the first bell. Like I'd done several times before, I had wandered through the building and explored the unlocked rooms. On previous occasions, I had found the teacher's lounge, the teacher's library, and a lab left open. I'd never had the luck to get into the student library, though. The door was always double-locked, as if to prevent anyone jimmying it open. I'd tried, too, although mostly out of boredom.
I sat up, startled, and I closed the brown, hardback book in my hands. I read the cover.
"Modern Rhetoric," I said.
"We don't use that anymore. Eric, we haven't used it for ten years. How did you get a copy?"
"I, uh ..." I took a moment to contemplate my possible alibis. None occurred to me. "The library was open."
"That's a copy from the teacher collection."
"I guess so, yes."
"I've never had a student steal anything from that before."
"Sorry." In truth, I didn't much feel I'd done anything wrong. If I felt contrite, it was about taking my reading spot for granted and getting caught. I lifted the evidence between us. "Why don't we use this book anymore? It's good. The teacher library has lots of books that are better than the ones we have now."
My voice took on the tone of an accusation, as if the English department were hiding the best stuff from me and knew it.
"What essay?" He straightened from his inspection of the cover. This particular teacher was a dapper man, always dressed in a blazer and tie. He had gotten his doctorate in English and likely would have been an excellent university professor but he had been drawn to our high school, where he was chair of the department.
"You were reading." He leaned closer.
"Oh." I flipped it back open. I'd kept my place with my finger. "Well, I've read all the metaphors. So I skipped those today. I was looking through the passages on narrative tone. This one is by Dos Passos, I guess. Then comes Mencken."
"Do you know who John Don Passos is?"
I shrugged. "He wrote experimental stuff."
The department head proceeded to give me an informal quiz. I didn't feel bad about taking the books; I wouldn't have minded a detention or getting flunked; I'd read a fair amount from the teacher collection; so he got opinions out of me pretty quickly. Some of them made him scowl. He liked Joseph Conrad and I didn't. I had found a passage by Conrad I enjoyed, though, and he was happy about the discovery.
"How long have you been doing this?" he asked. He glanced in the direction of his reserves of teacher volumes.
"Do you like 'Modern Rhetoric?'" he asked.
"Yeah." The lessons written by Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren were acceptable at best. In their examples, though, they cited a lot of the best passages from the best writers in the English language. So the bright spots in their collection were fantastic - almost as good as anything could be, really.
He took a breath.
"Keep it," he muttered.
"Yes. We're throwing it out." He looked away to the open front door of the classroom, not the back door, which led to the teacher lounge and library. His gaze seemed to verify there was no one around, not another student or teacher anywhere to overhear us.
"Well, don't," I protested.
"I've been ordered to destroy most of the books in the teacher resource room. I've been holding off because I like them." His shoulders slumped for a moment under his blazer. "And you cared enough to steal one. Well, borrow, I suppose."
"Steal," I admitted. He didn't know it but I had already helped myself to a volume of Modern American Poetry, which had verses from the beat generation in it. Their poems were fantastic. I kept them next to my bed. Also, I had taken for myself a text called Understanding Fiction. In that one, I had read "Christ in Flanders" by Honore Balzac and had been so moved by it that I returned on a later morning to read it again. Even on my second reading, I got teary-eyed and decided to take a copy. "There was a textbook with a lot of short stories ..."
"You took Understanding Fiction?"
He gritted his teeth for a moment. He may have been regretting his earlier pronouncement.
"I wondered where that went," he growled. He paused and took a big huff of air. "Don't take any more."
It occurs to me this sort of incident is no longer possible. There are no storerooms of forgotten tomes to discover in most American schools. No student gets bored enough to read textbooks for fun. In fact, currently in America we have made boredom nearly disappear.
A lot of the books I discovered by wandering through shelves were dull. But I never would have discovered Balzac or good poetry or many other fine, strange and low-circulation volumes without the time spent in boredom, on my feet, and in my many journeys of mindless browsing.