In college, all education majors studied the teaching of reading Learning to read is a process, we were taught, so teaching reading was to be undertaken systematically. Phonics, consonant blends and diphthongs were to be introduced according to the assigned methodology before the real business of reading could begin. Then we were to deal with contextual clues and what was called “meaning.”
But it wasn’t that way for me at all. I carried around a stack of soft cover readers all summer as my fourth birthday approached. The books came from Mom’s classroom, from the back cabinet with the tall glass paned doors.
To me, her classroom was a treasure chest filled with stacks of books, construction paper in every color, new black pencils. The room smelled of crayons and harsh liquid hand soap. I didn’t like the smell much, but mom always said her classroom was beautiful. It anchored the original two-story wing of Stiles Elementary School and had a huge bay window, and a real fireplace built in. I never saw anyone make a fire, but she often gathered her students (she called them her “special children”) there during story time or to recite poems and finger plays.
That summer, I turned the pages of those books over and over again and carefully studied the pictures on each page.
The girls on these pages always looked happy. They wore dresses and leather shoes, even for playing outside.
I wore elastic waist corduroy pants that mom sewed for me; most of the time I put them on backwards. Mom reminded me every day that “the darts go in the back,” but I didn’t know what the darts were. I wore red tennis shoes with rubber caps over the toes, to make them last longer.
The girls in the books lived where there were sidewalks and other children to play with.
Our house sat back from a busy road where the speed limit was 50 miles per hour. No sidewalks, just a gravel shoulder between our mailbox and the speeding traffic. No other children lived nearby, at least that I knew of. I preferred to play inside anyway.
The girls in the books weren’t chubby, and they weren’t afraid of dogs either. I bet they didn’t cry when their hair tangled after washing. Their mothers always smiled and didn’t seem to get tired at all. Their fathers wore ties and white shirts just like the fathers on TV.
One day, as I examined the orderly world on the pages of those books, it occurred to me that I knew what the words said about each picture. I didn’t have to sound them out, or worry about consonant blends or diphthongs. They just made sense. I sat cross legged on the dining room floor and began to pronounce each word out loud.
Nobody noticed for a while, but then my brother Mike barreled through the back door and raced toward the living room to turn on the TV. He stopped. He listened, without my knowing. He yelled toward the kitchen, “Hey Mom, do you know what she’s doing?”
After two or three urgings, my mother broke free from her canning jars to come to the doorway. “She can read!” Mike announced. They stood silent for a moment. I continued to say each word, aware now that this must be something important.