In my previous post I wrote about the long circuitous road to my newest novel THAT BOY RED, and how it started with my love of a book, ANNE OF GREEN GABLES, by L.M. Montgomery.
This is how I first met Anne...
It was a hot day in late Spring, in Bombay (now called Mumbai) India. I was a student in Standard Four – Grade Four. I went to a private school, one of the best in Bombay – Cathedral and John Connon School. There was a girls school and a boys school back then, although later the schools merged and became co-ed. The girls’ uniform consisted of light cotton dresses with faint grey and white pin stripes, and a sash denoting the house (red, yellow, green or blue) to which the student belonged. I belonged to Red House, so I had a red sash.
My class was large and particularly lively and high spirited – read undisciplined – and as we grew older, we became the bane of all the teachers in school. I suspect that the unfortunate teacher who drew the short straw and was assigned our class threw herself down on the floor drumming her heels in despair and then went on to develop unexpected tics and twitches as the year progressed.
But back in Standard Four, we hadn’t yet reached the pinnacle of our potential for mischief. My teacher that year was a western woman, Mrs. Chaubal, and she had a great knack of handling us. I haven’t the faintest idea if she was British, Irish, American or Canadian. To us kids, all westerners were simply from abroad, and they all had funny accents because, of course, we spoke impeccable and unaccented English. What I do remember about Mrs. Chaubal is that she was pale skinned and freckled, had reddish hair tidily arranged in a French bun – a source of fascination to me – and she was smiling, enthusiastic, and had stocky legs and thick ankles.
One morning, Mrs. Chaubal, gathered us together in front of her desk to read to us. Perhaps she thought a morning read would calm our high spirits, or perhaps she simply wanted to share with us a book she loved.
It was that morning – squirming against the other girls on the hard vinyl floor, the overhead fan whirring our hair, with the faint school smells of disinfectant, chalk dust and sneakers wafting around us – that I first met Anne.
I was hooked from the start. Mrs. Chaubal read with great expression and energy, and she was adroit enough to skip the long descriptive passages that she thought might make us restless. Each morning, she read a part of the book, and each morning our eagerness to hear the story escalated. We were completely still and rapt as she read to us.
When the school year ended and the book didn’t, I had to find a copy of the book to finish the story. I had to find out whether Anne ever forgave Gilbert and what happened next.
I hunted the second hand book stores I frequented, and where I spent most of my pocket money, to no avail. I couldn’t find the book in the library across the road, either. Finally, I discovered it in a new book store and I unhesitatingly spent my precious pocket money on a brand new copy. I devoured the book. I was delighted to discover that there were sequels and I bought all the sequels I could lay my hot little hands on, and read them again and again.
I was an avid reader, and I used to trade books that weren’t keepers for other books to keep myself supplied with reading material. But I never dreamed of trading my Anne books. They were friends to re-visit over and over again. In one of my infrequent fits of organization, I arranged and numbered my books in order of their importance to me. ANNE OF GREEN GABLES was number one. Inside it I wrote:
The grass is green
The rose is red
This book is mine
'Til I am dead
P.S.Even after I’m dead.
I didn’t at first realize, not even after I’d read the books many times, that the world in which the books were set was a real place. I assumed that Anne’s world was entirely fictional.
I can’t remember exactly when I discovered that P.E.I., the place in which the books were set, was real. Perhaps it was when I studied Canada in a Geography class and the name Prince Edward Island leapt out at me and settled with a satisfying click against the name I’d read in the books.
But I do remember that the moment when I realized P.E.I. was real was a light bulb moment.
I decided in an exuberant burst of joyful adventure that one day I would go there. And so I did, after I graduated from university...and met my husband...and was inspired by my father-in-law’s anecdotes to write THAT BOY RED.
I don’t imagine that Mrs. Chaubal could have envisioned the far-reaching and life-changing impact she had on one small girl sitting in front of her, drinking in the words to the story she loved and shared with her students.
Perhaps you teachers who read aloud to your students don’t always get thanked. Perhaps you don’t hear about the lives you change – but be assured that you do change lives. If nothing else, you bring delight – yes, delight, the light – to your students.
Thank you, Mrs. Chaubal, where ever you are.