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.