PITTSFIELD

Ruth Bass' words in the Monday Eagle about her visit to Fenway Park were both inspiring and a model for column writing. It was a reminder why the rest of us columnists continue to stand in her shadow. I enjoyed it so much I read it twice. That, I guess, is one of the beauties of the printed word, whether it be newspaper journalism or simply a good book. You can read it twice, or more, and no separate admission is required for the extra ride on that literary carousel.

I received my share of sports books when I was very young and developed a love for reading. Just about any book that crossed my path was fair game, and when an older friend taught me the ins and outs of the Berkshire Athenaeum when I was not quite 12, well, all bets were off. I loved going there and rarely left without the five-book maximum.

What better way to end a long and active day than to read before falling asleep. Those moments in the still of the night when the chapter ended and I had to decide whether I had enough concentration to read another segment were big-time decisions for a young reader. Sometimes you would cheat and flip the pages just to see how long that next chapter was going to be. Then you had to make an educated decision to either put the book down or continue to read.

You knew the book was good when you went from pages 33 to 98, and you didn't remember turning the pages. That was a good sign. I don't remember ever starting a book that I didn't finish, at least a book that I was reading by choice versus one that was a scholastic mandate.


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I think the first fly in the ointment came when I began to get assigned book reports. At the elementary school level, they send you out on the book report tightrope with a safety net below.

The instructions were simple: Pick a book of your choice and read it. OK, that's easy enough. And the outline was simple to follow. Title, author, main characters and a brief narrative of the story. I look back now and believe that this is about when the wheels started to come off the educational train I was riding. It wasn't cheating, but I quickly figured out that I could shave a little time off this project by using a book that I had already read.

Perfect. Book report done in about 20 minutes and no time taken away from the book I was currently reading. My conscience was semi-clear -- after all, about half the guys I knew were doing their reports on comic books they had read or chose to read. Nice. Why didn't I think of that?

The stakes became higher as I progressed through the city's public school system, which did what it could to discourage me from reading, or at least enjoying it. They gave me textbooks, of all things, on subjects like biology, chemistry, history and math, which by the way has words and numbers.

I think I know what happened. I had trained my eyes and brain to read, absorb and enjoy my books at a quick speed. All of a sudden I was forced to slow down and process information that neither interested nor inspired me. I didn't like it. It was like serving broccoli to someone who didn't like vegetables. I mean, it was hard to swallow.

The demands of homework -- and I'll never be convinced that the concept of homework is actually beneficial in the big picture -- began to cut into my free reading time, and to be honest, when push came to shove, I opted for the books I wanted to read and not the ones I was told to read.

This tact greatly compromised the education the city was trying to give me. I regressed a bit academically but I learned to expand my reading base from primarily sports and science fiction to books with a little more meat such as biographies, autobiographies and some high-end nonfiction. I considered it a step forward. Those in the other camp told me it was a step backward. So be it.

I don't think I was evolving to be as smart as some others. But I always felt I was learning as much, it just wasn't what was being doled out during my daily classes. Smart, I began to understand, was a very subjective term. I kept my head above water, and as time went on I realized there were many just like me.

Students who didn't respond well to mainstream education weren't stupid; they simply weren't getting the education plan that would have fit them the best. Advanced placement classes cater to the high-wattage bulbs. But the masses who slogged through the gray colors that were regular classes had to deal with the same old same old. And it did get old, for teachers and students. It still does.

I began to look at books as the enemy and started to find reasons not to read. Thankfully, that phase of my life was brief. I found my way back to books and continued to read what inspired me. It remains that way today, which is why I never miss the columns of Ruth Bass on Monday. Reading, you see, is more fun for me than writing. And I just wanted to thank Ruth for reminding me of that.

Brian Sullivan can be reached at mariavicsullivan@yahoo.com.