Cirencester Scene December 2017

How to Open a Book by J R Moeller


It is one of the unwritten axioms of life that each of us has had a teacher who  made an impact on our lives, and not always in the subject taught.

My love of English literature, for example, should have been the result of Miss Crow’s class in the subject.

No. Miss Crow taught me how to open books.

Her voice still rings out. ‘James, do not open that book yet. We will do it together.’

Those were the days when students had to buy their textbooks from the school. The money for books was due at the beginning of the semester. If you were unfortunate and could not afford to pay, you must make do with copies deposited in the school library.

Everyone in Miss Crow’s class, however, had a textbook. She saw to that, sometimes personally.

Once the books were issued, the class was told to place everything else on the floor.

‘Now place the book you have just received to the right of the centre of your desk.’ When everyone’s book was sited correctly, she issued the next instruction. ‘Place the book on its spine, and open it at the centre, laying it thus.’ She would place her book on a high dais at the front of the class and open it. ‘Do not force it, but let it open naturally.’

We were instructed to open half of the first half, half of the second half, and so on, until we had opened the book in some eight places. We then were told to close it, place it upside down on the other side of the desk, and repeat the whole process for the other side of the book.

Miss Crow glanced at the clock. At that moment, with exquisite timing perfected over the years, the bell rang which signified the end of the class period. Another year of correctly opened books was launched.

And literature? Her classes were memorable for events which framed the literature we were studying: a tea party in Dover; a bit of weaving for Silas Marner; a candle for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets. I did not always understand the connections, but the ones that were far-fetched often turned out to have the strongest memory. If nothing else, her classes were memorable although I remember very little of the literature taught in them.

Some years later, I arrived in England, but I could not connect anything of Miss Crow’s teaching to the realities of living there. However, I arrived during the Swinging Sixties and life had changed from her land of thatched cottages and quaint customs.

Yet, her vision of England struck me as the true one, or at least an inspiring one. This is not to deny the grittier view, but Miss Crow’s image is the one she passed on to a whole generation of students in that small mid-western town whose only other connection with England was it’s founding by an ex-Colonel from Staffordshire.

Mind how you open your next book.