Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Great Escape

Oh, magic hour, when a child first knows she can read printed words.”
Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

                I don’t really remember when I first knew I could read printed words. I’m not even certain that there was one such moment for me. I was very young, probably three, when I began reading. My mother says that she assumed for a long time that I simply had all of my books memorized, but then when she gave me a new one and I opened it and started reading aloud, she realized that Something had happened. I do recall a day when I was four and I picked up a Reader’s Digest that was on the sofa and flipped to a page with a picture of an animal on it. I had read three or four sentences about the wolf when it dawned on me that this was a magazine for Grownups. It was not one of my “little kid” books. After that, I all but abandoned my picture books in pursuit of Real Stories. Still, from time to time I would return to the four puppies who were sad when the seasons changed, the gloomy camel who found purpose in having his hair used to make a sweater for a little girl, the ill-behaved Cat in the Hat,  the Giant Golden Book version of Doctor Doolittle with the two-page spread of the good doctor with all of his animals, and, of course, Max and his “wild things”.

                Books were, for me, friends and companions. I would peruse the encyclopedia, the world atlas, the dictionary, and the Big Book of Nature for hours on end. The Big Book of Nature had pictures of nearly every animal, plant, and rock that my young brain could comprehend. The picture of the gila monster frightened me terribly but I nevertheless felt compelled to turn to that page every time I looked at the book. I imagined the gila monster to be huge and fierce, something on the order of a fire-breathing dragon. The book was lost in the fire, but to this day I can close my eyes and see that gila monster with its yellow eyes, ready to leap from the page and attack. As I browsed through the book I learned a considerable amount about animals, flowers, trees, and rocks. When the patience of those around me had grown thin because I just had to share, constantly, the facts I had learned, I would slip outside and find the nearest pet . The dog, cat, or pony would then receive the benefit of my knowledge.

                I ran into some trouble when I entered school already literate. Like the young Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, I was an object of suspicion. My mother earnestly explained to the teacher that I had somehow learned to read. I remember her saying, “I don’t know HOW it HAPPENED” in an apologetic tone. I wondered exactly what it was I had done wrong. My schoolteacher aunt had already chastised my mother for my ability, saying that I could not possibly have learned to read “the right way.” Since in those days phonics had been discarded, for the most part, in favor of the Look-Say Method and Whole Language instruction, I had in fact learned in precisely the way the schools were teaching. I had simply done it rather early and by osmosis rather than intentional reading “lessons”. Thus kindergarten and first grade were an endless bore. I was relegated, during reading instruction, to the library, where the librarian was made to understand that I should be allowed to choose books from the Junior section rather than the Beginners. Since I had already begun, at home, to read fascinating stories from my sister’s high school literature books, this didn’t really help very much. Furthermore, I still had to complete what was required by the Great State of Indiana, so I zipped through the Getting Ready to Read workbook in one evening at home, then tore into the books and workbooks that centered around the dog Tip, the kitten Mitten who, disturbingly, never aged over the course of three primers and two hardback readers, and Jack and Janet, who spent a lot of time flying kites and pulling their pets in a wagon.  I finished all of this nonsense in record time and then was allowed to pursue my own pleasures.

                Unwittingly, I had already begun the process of a slow but inevitable social suicide. By the age of seven, I was firmly convinced that something must be terribly wrong with me. I had friends but they didn’t seem to understand a word I said. I was consoled by being permitted to help some of the slower students  with their work. One little boy named Stephen wanted to read so badly, and I desperately wanted the same for him. I tried everything I could think of, but at seven one’s resources are a bit limited. Still, he did eventually learn to read the first two primers. Sort of. I think he actually mostly had them memorized, but he was happy and proud and that made me feel good. I did not know then that God was already working to prepare me for a future career as a teacher. I just knew that Stephen was sad when other kids told him he was stupid, and that he felt stupid, and I sympathized because I felt…weird.

                I continued to feel weird throughout my school years. Okay, in some ways I WAS weird. I was very shy, to the point where I did not talk at all some days during my first couple of years in school. I more than made up for it at home, where I seldom shut up. The older I got, the more of a handicap my shyness became. When I was in third grade we moved to Texas, where my best friend on the school campus was a tree. The school had a great library, though, and I won a prize for reading the most books in my grade that year-over a hundred. I also won the  third-grade spelling bee. These accomplishments served only to secure my place as the School Nerd and I never really shook that image. As hard as I tried to become a Bad Girl during my high school years, my love for books did not diminish and the school library remained my sanctuary. You can’t really be a total Bad Girl if you are seen reading Les Miserables  for fun. My image of myself became completely distorted, but reading was my constant refuge which made me a big hit with my English teachers.

                I discovered recently that there is a name for the “condition” I had as a child. It is called “hyperlexia” and is characterized by precocious early reading with precocious comprehension abilities. It just figures that the experts would slap a label on it. I have always felt that God made me that way to make up for the fact that the part of my brain that should be able to do higher math is either damaged or missing. For whatever reason, He did make me that way.  The gifts I have received from books far outweigh what I had to endure. Last night my husband commented on the fact that, with the daily downloading of twenty or more books to my Kindle, he has at last found a way to keep ahead of me. I can read three or four books a day during the summer. I love my Kindle. But I will never give up real books.

                There is a smell and feel to books. There is something special about turning the pages. I like to revisit my childhood favorites from time to time, and I relish the thrill I get when I open a book. A few years ago, my husband  found the Windy Foot books for me on Ebay. Of all the horse books I devoured in my youth, the Windy Foot stories were my favorites. The ones he got me were discarded from libraries so they have the same bindings and covers that I remember.The stories are warm and sweet, if a bit cheesy. No matter. They are comfortable. Last night I read Lad:A Dog, which is about as sentimental and melodramatic as a book can possibly get. I cried anyway, just as I did when I was eight years old. I go to book sales and find copies of favorites that were lost in the fire, like Stuart Little and The Phantom Tollbooth, and I feel as if I am at a family reunion. Books connect me with places and people and animals and things I loved. I cannot read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn without thinking of my father, who introduced me to the book and loved it as I do. I think of my fourth-grade teacher when I read Watership Down, and each visit to Pooh Corner takes me back to a bedroom strewn with stuffed toys where I sat in rapt wonder and listened to a recording of Sebastian Cabot reading In Which Pooh Goes Visiting and Gets Into a Tight Place. I rather adore that Bear of Very Little Brain.

                There is no substitute for the wonder and the magic of reading. I only wish that I could get every student to understand that. I wish that they all could have heard my dad read A Christmas Carol . I try to duplicate his Scrooge, but I just don’t measure up. I wish that they could understand what a gift it is to be able to read, to be transported to faraway places and Places That Never Were, and see the impossible made possible.  Even if I cannot make them love reading as I do, I wish that I could at least make them see its importance. A few do. Even fewer of them love it, maybe one or two in every class, but that small handful makes my time worthwhile. And among the many who aren’t readers, there still will sometimes come that moment when they do connect with a particular book, and say to their own surprise, “Hey, I really liked that book.” And my heart sings. For just a moment, a soul has been touched, and a student feels the way I feel about reading. These glimpses assure me of the goodness of God, and of my Purpose. It is He who gave us the gift of words and language. He made me This Way. Call me “hyperlexic”,  a “bookworm” a “bibliophile” or even a “freak”. It doesn’t matter. No one else need understand it, really. It is just a part of the way I am designed-designed by God.

“Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”  -Scout Finch

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