(10)-Home-Room_bWe were the leftovers, assigned to Home Room in the Home Ec room, tucked away in an upper corner of the aging Horace Mann Junior High School. Inexplicably, our Home Room teacher, Mr. Roan, taught Shop. Every morning he climbed the flights of stairs from the noisy, oily machines of the basement, clutching his coffee mug and wearing a mildly pained look on his face. He dropped some folders on the laminate of the front table, settled atop his tall stool, and began to do paperwork. He avoided eye contact and left us to our own devices. “No playing with the stoves” and “Be quiet” were Mr. Roan’s only two rules for the thirty minutes each day we spent with him.

The school year passed slowly. Each morning we sat among the ghost-scents of the previous day’s cooking endeavors: eggs scrambled with Velveeta cheese and onions one day, cherry pie that had bubbled over to coat the ovens with the sick-sweet smell of burnt sugar the next and, once, an entire week of various steamed vegetables. Too young for coffee, and wakened by our parents well ahead of our biological clocks, we gagged on those clumsy culinary efforts.

Finally, on a clammy mid-June day with the tall, screenless windows wide open, we waited breathlessly for eighth grade to be over. Mr. Roan called us up one by one and grimly handed us our final report cards. When my turn came he stared at my report card, with its usual medley of highs and lows. That year it was mostly lows; behind the thick shield of my glasses I had discovered Boys, even if they had not yet discovered me.

Mr. Roan looked up at me, back at my grades, and sighed. “Read some books over the summer,” he said. “Start with these.” He scribbled the titles of seven books on a scrap of paper and handed it to me. I clutched the list behind my report card as I returned to my seat. I would not be sharing this with anyone.


In the relative cool of the summer mornings I dressed in shorts, sleeveless blouse, and tattered Keds and began the more than a mile walk to the public library. On the first visit, I engaged in a tense, whispered exchange with the librarian, who pointed out that I was not permitted to check out books from the adult section because I was not yet in high school. When I replied that my teacher had recommended them, her eyes narrowed in disbelief. I was persistent, though, and she finally snatched the books from my hands and pounded the date stamp twice for each book: once for the card she kept and once for the paper glued to the back of the book. After that encounter, we did not speak; I simply pushed the books across the counter, she stamped them sharply and pushed them back.

During each visit, I took my latest selections to a far corner of the library and curled up on one of the sleek sofas. The cool turquoise vinyl mixed with the frigid central air as I read. When I was chilled to the bone, I walked outside into the shimmering Ohio humidity and made my way slowly home. There I filled a large glass with iced tea and read on the front porch until my eyes were itchy and my legs were imprinted with the rough plastic webbing of the aluminum chair.

I read all seven of those books, and more.  I couldn’t stop reading. I still can’t. Two of the titles on the list come readily to mind: The Fountainhead and The Foxes of Harrow. They seemed simultaneously shocking and romantic, the latter being in perfect keeping with my newfound awareness of Boys. My quirky Home Room teacher had given me early entrée to the wonders of the adult section of the library. I never looked back.

Now I search through a trunk jammed with things I have saved. If I could find that list, the ink faded with age, I could be sure this happened.

Melissa Ballard’s personal essays have appeared in The Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Oberlin Alumni Magazine, Inside Higher Ed, and Flashquake.  She is an instructor at Oberlin College.

Photo by Ryan Rodgers