It came in the mail. A small package. A cardboard parcel no bigger than a VHS tape. I weighed it in my hands.
Definitely not a VHS tape. For one thing, it’s too heavy. For another, nobody even uses tapes anymore.
Not long ago, families had to rent VCRs from the supermarket if they wanted to watch video cassettes. Unless of course they were rich. In which case they went out and bought their own supermarkets.
Our supermarket movie rental selection was pathetic. The only two videotapes available were the complete first season of “The Lawrence Welk Show,” and “Porky’s Revenge!”
Anyway, I’m sitting on my porch steps and opening the package with a pocket knife. I have an idea of what is inside, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions.
The first thing I see is a printed name on a book cover. Four letters.
The Gaelic spelling of my first name has long been mispronounced by P.E. teachers and telemarketers alike. It’s unclear why my mother chose this name. She either named me after my Scotch-Irish ancestors, or she named me after 007.
My money’s on 007. She loved Sean Connery as James Bond. When we purchased our first VCR, my mother would would rent Bond movies from the local library all the time and watch them when she ironed clothes.
She and I were big regulars at the library. I got my first library card when I was in kindergarten and I can still remember signing my name on the back of that card. I signed: SEJMN. Which was close enough for 007.
After my father passed I practically lived at libraries. The elderly librarians were my friends. These were blue-haired ladies who were old enough to have single-digit Social Security numbers. But I loved them.
I read truckloads of cheap paperback books. Not high literature, but low-brow books that I should be embarrassed about. Books about cowboys, espionage, suspense, and toilet humor.
I wasn’t reading because I was a bookworm. I read because books were an escape hatch from reality.
I was shy, I was awkward, I was chubby. School teachers always had a hard time figuring me out. Some liked me. A few didn’t.
One early teacher discovered that I paid better attention whenever I was drawing. She always kept a blue-lined tablet in my desk and encouraged me to doodle when she taught lessons. And it worked, too. That year, I made the best grades of my career.
But the good grades ended after her class. After that, most teachers generally saw me as a big pain in the ascot. I fell behind in my work a lot.
One teacher in particular said I was “slow.” And in those days this word meant “stupid.”
It’s funny how deeply one word can affect you. Ever since then, I considered myself a slow human being.
There were four kids in our entire school who were slow. We were all in a special class called “remedial class.” Nobody knew what remedial meant, even the word sounded like a rare form of medieval torture. Either way, we slowish kids knew we were the village idiots.
Thus, Mrs. Shields would knock on our classroom door at 8:30 A.M. every weekday and a few of us would rise and happily accompany her to the remedial class. I have read before that lambs go happily to the butcher.
Each time we left the grade school classroom, I would hear snickering from other students. It wasn’t full-on laughter. Just soft chuckling.
In remedial class there was Jon, who was taller than anyone in school, his mother packed his lunchbox with two sandwiches instead of one. And Allie, who was Native American, the sweetest soul you ever met. And me.
We would sit in a little backroom while Mrs. Shields talked to us like we were hard of hearing. I know she wasn’t trying to act ugly toward us, but sometimes that makes it even worse.
So when I got the chance to drop out of school in the seventh grade after my father died, I did. I regret that now. But now maybe you understand why.
Still, I never quit reading. In fact I read more often than I should have. I read more library books than some of my friends thought was healthy for me. I became so fast at reading that I was zipping through several books per week.
There are swatches of my adolescence when I was rarely seen without a book. There’s a photograph of me standing with my mother and sister in Disney World. I am holding the book “Sphere,” by Michael Crichton. What a dork.
But literature saved me. And even though the idea of me being a writer makes about as much sense as me being an astronaut, I started writing novels. Which means some kid out there might be holding a book with my name on it at Disney World.
The publisher sent me an early copy. I got to hold it. A novel about the size of a VHS tape. “By Sean Dietrich.” This is a moment in my life I won’t soon forget.
And do you know what I hope more than anything? I hope that somewhere in the world, perhaps in a dark and dingy remedial classroom, that kid who feels like a complete screw-up is reading this exact sentence. I hope he realizes that even though some might say he’s slow, and even though some might think he’s never going to amount to beans in this world, these people are flat wrong.
Because to me that kid is 007.
Sandi. - January 30, 2021 6:56 am
In my opinion, all those folks who considered you “slow” years ago in school were actually too slow to realize your potential as a gr8 writer, Sean.
Nell Thomas - January 30, 2021 10:25 am
Agree. Well stated.
Cheryl Andrews - January 30, 2021 3:58 pm
Awesome essay! When I taught third grade, I had students with all types of interests in learning.
During my teaching career, I taught small groups of students who needed extra help. And you want to know something — I loved those kids— even the rascals!
Susan Parker - January 30, 2021 7:09 am
I’m with Sandi. Some people look at “unique” and have so little understanding and observational ability, all they see is “weird”, or worse, “wrong”. You, Sean, are great. Great writer, great man. Great.
Christina - January 30, 2021 7:24 am
Yes you are a living testimony of a real 007 to kids of every age
Dawnie B - January 30, 2021 7:26 am
Why do they pick out children like that in front of everybody else? They should realize in their highly educated brains this will only ostracize them from the others. There are brilliant minds who learn differently than teachers teach.
terrykerns - January 30, 2021 7:40 am
Wait, who was the fourth kid?
Byron Allrn - January 30, 2021 1:13 pm
Every kid. Every kid who has been picked on, bullied and made to feel they aren’t enough. Or it could be Joe Biden. Use your imagination.
Joe Dorough - January 30, 2021 9:36 am
Wow! Sean my jaw dropped when you said you were in special education in School! Is this true? You’re smarter than all the kids in your homeroom class! There’s nothing slow about you! You’re the butterfly that developed from the worm! I’m proud of you!!
Nell Thomas - January 30, 2021 10:24 am
Love the story. Stay well and keep on writing.
Leigh Amiot - January 30, 2021 11:08 am
Most kids who lost a parent at a tender age back in our day didn’t have means or access to grief counseling. I’m another who lost interest in school after a parent’s early demise at 42, I was 11. Hindsight informs me grief and depression made it hard to focus. School is a torturous place to be confined when one’s soul is in agony, but I realize now anywhere would be. I pray some struggling kid somewhere reads your essay and grabs on to that seed of HOPE that in time joy and achievement return. Life’s rewards come packaged differently than grades on a report card to some of us. Thank you for sharing that moment of opening your newly published book with a pocket knife and marveling over seeing your name on it. Books are indeed an ideal escape hatch, the best is the Word of God, author of the bestseller of all time. You’re in good company, Sean!
Deborah L Blount - January 30, 2021 11:12 am
Genius walks where few understand or see.
joan moore - January 30, 2021 12:01 pm
Sean, I cringe to think about what would have happened if you hadn’t left that wasteland of a school. Thank you for being so kind to the other misunderstood children like you!
Melanie - January 30, 2021 12:43 pm
I believe most of my five uncles dropped out of school around the 6th – 7th grade usually to help support their parents and four sisters. They are the best people I know. All made it through this life, successfully raised and supported their own families and now their great grandchildren hugging their necks. They are very smart and wise men. Considering the state of today’s educational system might not be a bad idea to take your route Sean.
Naomi Storey - January 30, 2021 12:45 pm
This reminds me of my youngest grandson who started reading when he was 3. His grandfather and the rest of his father’s family liked to hunt and fish and they expected him to like it. When his grandfather took him fishing, he would sit in the truck and read a book. He was always reading, but his grandparents and his uncles couldn’t understand him. When he started 1st grade, they expected him to read the “Dick and Jane” books. He told his teacher that he didn’t read books with pictures in them, so she sent him to the principal’s office. Thankfully, his principal realized how smart he was and let him go to other classes to teach children who were struggling with learning how to read.
Leslie - January 30, 2021 1:14 pm
Sean, today is my birthday and I got to read your column. Thank you for the gift.
johnnybracey - January 30, 2021 1:16 pm
007, I had a similar situation, but I stuck it out and finished High School and miraculously was accepted to the University of Georgia in the Holy City of Athens Georgia. I am sure that the Vietnam War was the motivation for me to stay in college for 5 years. Still not long enough to avoid the draft. But I had a wonderful career owned my own business and and am now retired. Not bad for a SLOW person. You keep motivating me with your writing!!!
Kate - January 30, 2021 1:22 pm
As I high school teacher I loved all my students and never thought any of them were “slow”. Some preferred mechanics over literature, some preferred athletics over biology, some were in the vocational programs, others in college prep. What I came to realize early was that many of my students thought they were “slow” because some adult had told them that, but all my students were smart, just smart in different ways. Our schools make a mistake by telling students if they are not a wiz at math or science they are dumb. Many students will go on to me artists, musicians, bankers, etc. Most will go on to be wonderful people and do good in the world. I was dyslexic (a leaning disability where letters or numbers sometimes reverse when one reads) when no one knew what that was so I was always in the buzzard group in math. Luckily I went on to be very successful in all that I did, My husband was told by a teacher when he was in high school he would probably never graduate and would never amount to anything. He was from a very poor family. He did graduate went into the military, graduated from college, got a masters, and is a wonderful man in every way. Thanks for encouraging all of us Sean. Most teachers are so wonderful and do so much good, but unfortunately the education system does sometimes fail in helping kids that sometimes need help the most. What you wrote today should be required reading for everyone. Reading and libraries have saved many of us and unfortunately many libraries are being closed.
Bob Brenner - January 30, 2021 1:29 pm
Your life is truly a “Life well lived”! You had me at 007. God speed Sean Dietrich ❤️
Jan-e - January 30, 2021 1:29 pm
My dad taught us to love to read-5 girls. We would bring home those “tomes” (they were giant books) that would be collectors items now I suppose. Treasure Island, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyet, etc. etc. He would read a chapter or two at night. Also a bit of the bible. Sing a hymn. Weren’t we blessed. We still all 5 read. Grew up reading Nancy Drew, Hardy boys, Earl Stanley Gardner-Perry Mason(the name of those escapes me now), Avalon romances about nurses. Till this moment, I never thought of it as an escape, but it was. My father had a bit of a problem with alcohol until I was a first grader. He is gone now, but he left us with some awesome memories, mostly good, some bad(forgivable). Thank you for writing. You are a blessing to the world that reads you.
Julia Swaney - January 30, 2021 1:35 pm
Thank you for this, Sean❤️
My grandson ,Charlie, who is a very busy and bright little guy likes to draw elaborate pictures while he is doing virtual school in front of a little iPad. It helps him sit still and I think he is absorbing a lot of information at the same time.
Hopefully teachers are better at identifying kids who learn differently and not labeling them in discouraging ways.
I’m glad books saved you. I know the Laura Ingalls wilder series and the Magic Castle books got me through fourth grade 🙂 Love your writing, PS I am making cornbread today because of you!
Wade Childers - January 30, 2021 1:52 pm
I was in Special Education classes all through High School. I am now A Ambassador for the Local Chamber of Commerce. Former Sergeant at Arms and Board Member for our Local Rotary Club. Public Speaker. I Have been Marketing for Servpro for almost 25 Years. Daily Reader of the Bible and Read your great Column Daily.
Tammy S. - January 30, 2021 2:02 pm
I was talking to a friend recently. She has a niece who is a guidance counselor in HS. We were talking Covid, virtual school (isn’t everyone always talking Covid now 😩) and what she told me was a bit of hope in this otherwise confusing, frustrating times. She said her niece had told her that one of the surprising things she has seen in her HS, and in talking to other educators and guidance counselors is the fact that some students, students who tend to be shy, a little awkward and introverted, those students who use to struggle in a classroom setting are actually thriving through virtual classroom. Many students who we C/C+ students are now making A’s and thriving in a way that they did not in an in-person setting. It was so revealing and encouraging to me just to hear that some good has come from all this. I got off the phone thinking of those many students who might have been feeling less than, when they were not. And now they know, “I can do this.” My friends niece seems to think this virtual option is here to stay as an option for students/families who would want to stay virtual. If that is what it takes for some students, why not. And hopefully schools will open back up, sooner than later, for those students who are social butterflies, like our grandson, who is so missing seeing his teachers and friends. He so misses being in a classroom. But some, do better from home. Either way, all children have potential to learn and thrive in their own way and should be told “you’ve got this, and I am here to help” by parents, teachers and other adults. A young growing, maturing mind is a terrible thing to discourage!! So, so glad you had those whose voices were louder in encouraging than the ones who discouraged you, Sean!!
Jan - January 30, 2021 2:14 pm
Great column this morning as always! I can identify on so many levels – the shy, pudgy, bookworm in school who still loves to read and write! Unfortunately, my writing does not compare to yours. Also, I used to be a red head a few years ago and my ancestors were Scots Irish with some German thrown in. Thanks for another great start to my day!
Belinda Crowell - January 30, 2021 2:28 pm
Keep writing, Sean! Ain’t nothing slow about you, buddy!
Kathy Taylor - January 30, 2021 3:12 pm
If you haven’t read “The Junkyard Wonders” by Patricia Polacco, you should. Actually, everyone of any age should read this. It can be found in the short fiction for children in the library. While classified as fiction, it is based on her time in a special class in school. Just be sure to read the last page that comes after the story. God does not create mistakes, just people with different gifts and talents.
Jenny Young - January 30, 2021 3:30 pm
Something that is really sad is that most kids feel like a dork at times. Even the ones that appear successful can live in fear. I hate the way we raise our children…herding them altogether with few adults to really guide them in how to grow their character. Anyone who survives our childhoods is pretty amazing to me.
Nancy - January 30, 2021 4:18 pm
My son has ADD. School was always hard for him. Now he’s interested in WWII. He reads. My daughter and two granddaughters read. One taught herself to read at 4. She helped kids in her kindergarten class with reading.
Gloria Knight - January 30, 2021 4:47 pm
I grew up in the country outside a small town in S. Ga. My mother loved to read ( women’s magazines by mail). She made sure every summer that she took me to the library in town for books. I’m still a reading nut and even though Covid has closed my local library, they will put requested books outside for you to pick up. Keeps me & many others in the community sane!
Janet Mary Lee - January 30, 2021 5:18 pm
Many teachers beat their heads today against administration. Many people are put into administration who have no idea what they are doing. They cannot do their job correctly, and to hide it, are unwilling to make changes until it is too late. And you are right, some teachers have their degree and then do not further their education or are just waiting for retirement. We do not fix the problems that are and make people accountable, and then money is thrown at the problem as a fix all. In many cases, that does not fix what’s broke. I raised two teachers, and am proud to say they both have other solutions for children who learn differently, or have heartaches stemming from home problems. What they and many could do if they were nurtured! Teacher or student!! Bless you Sean!!
Dee Thompson - January 30, 2021 5:33 pm
I was a fat, shy, awkward kid, mercilessly bullied in school. Books were my retreat. I was never without one. I even read during recess. Now I write novels, and publish them myself on Amazon, just for fun. Books can save people, yes, but you inspire us, Sean.
Linda Chapman - January 30, 2021 5:33 pm
You always inspire me! I finished 7th grade so I made it just a little bit longer than you did. I was pregnant at 14. But like you, I never quit reading and I’m now 72 years old and writing my first book, a memoir titled Children in the Closet. We all have a story and you encouraged me as I am writing mine.
PS….I’m on chapter 20
Linda Moon - January 30, 2021 6:09 pm
I understand why you dropped out of school. I’m a former librarian, then teacher. Therefore, you are officially absolved and released from your schoolhouse time spent in the remedial classroom. One of the best teachers I ever worked with passed recently. Good teachers, like her, see us as we are. Rest in Peace, Ms. Barnes, who believed that teaching was not just a job but a way of life. You teach us, too, Novelist. I learn from you every day!
Leesa - January 30, 2021 6:13 pm
Labels can be deadly. Unfortunately they can follow us forever as folks seem to accept someone else’s assessment without giving the individual a chance. Thanks again, Sean, for a reflection on our world. I too was one of those children that sought solace in books. The librarians in the children’s section knew me well.
elizabethroosje - January 30, 2021 6:28 pm
Books really are a blessing!! Can’t wait to read your new novel!
nebraskannie - January 30, 2021 8:13 pm
The same thing happened to me, different reasons. I believed them for a long time, but when I quit believing, I realized that I had something THEY wanted. I had something THEY thought I’d never have, knowledge of how to accomplish the things that were important to me. One of the best things that ever happened to me was having mononucleosis when I was a kid. I had to spend six months in bed. We didn’t have TV. There was nothing to do but read and I loved it. When I got through the stacks of books mom brought home from the library, I’d start reading the dictionary. I learned grammar, parts of words and things I probably shouldn’t have at that age. They were escape and also gave me the opportunity to learn that not everyone thinks or perceives the same way. I can only wish that people growing up today don’t listen to ANYONE who says they CAN’T. Look at what you do, and be proud of it! Today I’m in a wheelchair and the same mindset that said I don’t learn the same way as everyone else has made me thrive because I look at it like a challenge, not what I can’t do, but how can I do it differently.
MAM - January 30, 2021 8:16 pm
Libraries are a blessing! I practically lived in ours as a kid. I remember the first place it was temporarily, then finally its own building. The books were there for the borrowing and reading, and I devoured books. My now editorial and reporter writing keeps me from reading as much as I want to. I tend to read newspapers/magazines while eating meals. Nancy Drew was my favorite. I don’t think I missed a one of the originals. Keep writing, Sean. I look forward to your message EVERY day!
Gail - January 30, 2021 8:39 pm
Your writing is brillant, sensitive, funny and just downright delightful. I’m so glad you survived your childhood to bring us inspiration & joy as an adult.
Helen De Prima - January 30, 2021 9:23 pm
A true reader is never alone.
Donia - January 30, 2021 9:28 pm
Reading was my escape as a child and teen. It was my entertainment, and my way to travel the world vicariously. My Dad worked out of state six out of seven days, so there was no car at home to go anywhere. I would read at least seven books each week, and to this day I still love books.
Dean - January 30, 2021 10:40 pm
catladymac - January 30, 2021 10:57 pm
What became of the fourth kid in your remedial class ? You only mentioned three.
Donna Johns - January 31, 2021 2:29 am
Thank you!! Thank you for always being so honest and always standing in the corner of the underdog!! You are simply “awesome”!
Charaleen Wright - January 31, 2021 7:29 am
Debbie g - January 31, 2021 7:58 am
I agree 007 you be Proud of you !! Your words are inspirational. Thank you !!
Bill - January 31, 2021 4:31 pm
Great story, Sean. When it was time for me to go to bed at night, I would have a book under the covers with a flashlight reading. I can’t tell you the number of times my parents had to tell me to shut off the light and go to sleep. To this day I have a kindle loaded with books and am constantly reading. It’s great that you can download books from the library for free. I love good science fiction. I’m old enough to remember Tm Swift Jr. by Victor Appleton, not his real name. At 75, I’m still reading, almost to excess. It is a form of escape. Thanks for the story.
Buddy Caudill - January 31, 2021 10:24 pm
Sean, you are definitely one of my favorite authors.
My hat’s off to you, for enduring, and in turn, becoming an inspiration to many.
Ruth C Lee - February 4, 2021 4:45 pm
Sean, this is Bupkis Maryland. Happy New year! Mom’s turning 92 on Sunday. Her baby sister turned 91 in September. Aunt Ruthie lives in Orange Beach. Every morning, her son reads your posts with her over coffee.
That’s how I discovered you. Often, I don’t catch them all. Today I’m binging. This particular one has my grandson all over it! He may not be college bound, but who knows? An astronaut? My fave VHS was Gattica 😂
Julie - February 9, 2021 12:02 pm
You beat the odds, Sean, and I am so proud or your success! Not only are you a great writer, but even more importantly, you are a wonderful human being! Your bright mind and warm heart have taken you far in life. And one fine day, you’ll be passing through those Golden Gates of Heaven, and you will hear “Job Well Done, My Son…I canonize you Saint Sean”✝️