Column: Reading was a chore and bore until moment of revelation

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 12, 2001

Yes, I think every cloud has its silver lining.

Friday, January 12, 2001

Yes, I think every cloud has its silver lining. If I hadn’t been lacking in manual dexterity I might not have realized the moment when I knew how to read. When I started to school I thought I knew how to read. The adults in the family, including my grandmothers, aunts, uncles and what have you, all took it for granted that I knew how to read. It didn’t occur to me that none of them knew what they were talking about.

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It was a shock to all of us to find out that I just had a good memory, could hear a story read with such attention that I could pause and turn the pages at all the right places, while reciting it back. It is a gift, I think, associated with savant idiots.

It was my belief that what I was doing was learning to read. I assumed that the teacher would teach me to read by reading a book to me. Then I’d know how to read that one and we’d go to the next one.

For as long as I could remember my mother had promised to take me to the library as soon as I stopped running around in circles making weird noises. I thought I was dancing and singing, but I was perfectly willing to give it up in order to visit a library. I was almost three when we finally got there.

To this day, I remember the magnificent smell of the books, and the low tables and little chairs in the children’s section. The first book my mother took out for me was Beatrix Potter’s &uot;The Roly-Poly Pudding.&uot;

My father was so disgusted with the choice that he refused to remain in the house while she read it to me. When for some reason he was left to tell me a bedtime story it was always strange, but interesting. College age I found those stories again in &uot;Tales of the Monks&uot; and other medieval literature. But I enjoyed the &uot;Roly-Poly Pudding.&uot;

I can’t say I enjoyed the first-grade primers. They were filled with sentences about Mary and John, sister and brother, and their stupid dog, Fido. You were invited to &uot;See Mary run. See John run. See Fido run.&uot; They ran and they jumped and they hopped and they skipped, but they never really did anything. Nothing ever happened to them. They just kept running and jumping. My life was more interesting than theirs.

There are a number of high school drop-outs; had it been left to me I would have been a first-grade drop out. Not only did I lack manual dexterity and have trouble writing, but I discovered that I didn’t know how to read either. I saw little or no reason to hang around.

Sensing my difficulty, my mother borrowed a first-grade primer from a teacher friend and taught me to recognize words by looking at them. &uot;See the ‘k’ in ‘kitty’, honey, it looks just like a cat curling its tail.&uot;

She taught me to recognize phonics in the same way. It’s a method that has been blamed for all the difficulties of non-reading pupils. It worked for me. My grades in writing were nothing to write home about, but I did well in reading. It just left me totally unenthusiastic.

Then came the day when we were to weave the construction paper. A full sized sheet was cut in slits from top to bottom. Then you were given a pile of narrow strips of different colored construction paper. These you were supposed to weave into the full sized sheet, over and under, over and under. Why? Don’t ask me. Am I a school teacher?

Anyway everyone seemed to enjoy the drill. Everyone except Ethel Wilson and I. Ethel was a tall pale little girl, with long sad braids. She was 13 and still in the first grade. We shared the inability of sticking those strips over and under. After two or three tries the teacher lost patience and gave up on us. We didn’t have a school library, but in every window there was a holder for books from the upper classes. To keep us quiet the teacher handed one of the books to Ethel and one to me.

&uot;You can’t possibly read them,&uot; she said, &uot;But there are pictures in them. You can look at those.&uot; Ethel by this time was dissolved in tears over her inability to push the strips in and out, over and under. I couldn’t have cared less. Pushing strips of paper through slits in other paper was right up there with following the non-adventures of Mary, John and Fido, as far as I was concerned.

The picture I opened to showed horse nibbling at some vines around a bell tower. I glanced absently at the words of the story and wham! All of a sudden I was recognizing them. All of a sudden I was actually reading. All of a sudden I knew that if you could read one work you could read them all. To this day I get choked up remembering the sheer glory of that moment. From that day on I may have stumbled over a word or two in newspapers, magazines and books around the house. But non of them were ever completely closed to me again.

The teacher repented and offered Ethel and me one more chance to weave in and out. Ethel clapped her poor thin little hands together and took it. I don’t know how she made out. As for me, I waved the offer aside. I had better things to do.