Miss Merkle saved my life. At least that’s what I thought in third grade. You can read in my memoir 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, about how I longed to get out of the city of Flint and go back home—to the mountains of western Maryland and my friend Gertrude and my cousins and grandparents. I wanted to drink spring water again and see the stars at night. But, to my homesick way of thinking, I was stuck in Flint. That is until Miss Merkle, the school librarian, helped me escape.
She set me free with books, by breaking the library rule of two check-outs per student per week. She must have seen my yearning for books because one day she called me into the library.
“How many books a week could you read?” she asked.
When I said twenty, she gulped and told me to stop by after school each day for more books. But, she told me, don’t tell the other kids.
In this way, Miss Merkle offered me a way out of Flint. And I traveled to other worlds. Only these worlds were safer, more like I was looking through a window. I didn’t have to talk to anyone. No one heard my mountain accent. It didn’t matter that I was wearing plain, Mennonite clothes. No one could see me. And I didn’t have to drink their water. For a few hours I could forget my yearning for what was familiar. I could dismiss the feeling of not fitting in.
But Miss Merkle’s books also offered me a way into Flint. My reading simulated emotions in me, giving me the chance to recognize and understand my feelings. In the book Heidi, for example, Mr. Sesemenn says of the orphan who is sent away from the mountains to live in the city, “She is not fashioned for life among strangers.”
Me, either, I thought with passion, me either.
But I took quick note when Mr. Sesemenn went on to say that in the city Heidi had made some true friends, who were never so happy as when they were with her.
And this put the question before me—could I, too, make friends in the city?
Reading Miss Merkle’s books also gave me courage to understand those whose stories were different from mine. Empathy is an exercise in imagination. And practicing on characters in books helped me with the characters around me in Flint.
Fiction is, after all, about what it means to be human. And in my transition between two worlds, this was exactly what I was trying to understand.