Holidays are many things. A reminder to cherish those in our lives. A time for coming together. A moment to pause and look backward and forward, seeing what has come before and where it might lead.
We visited my family for Thanksgiving this year, fortunate to have a rare opportunity to reconnect. On the first evening of our visit, we sat and chatted. At some point, I walked over to my mother, put my arm around her shoulder, and said, “And I’m thankful to you for teaching me how to read.” My mother chuckled with a smirk and replied, “Yeah, right….”
I’ve loved books as long as I can remember (and I have memories that go back to when I was three years old). Long before I could read them, I would look through them constantly. I was fascinated by the mysterious symbols of letters and other characters, which I knew had meaning just out of my reach.
On my first day of kindergarten, the boy who came into class behind me introduced himself and already knew my name, thanks to his ability to interpret what my name tag said. I was astonished that someone my own age had the power to divine meaning from the chaos of letters. That kid had a head start on me, and I wouldn’t catch up to him for the rest of our time together.
One day while my mother took me grocery shopping, I told her about what we had learned in class: how to make rhymes. I excitedly demonstrated, frog, log, dog, fog. My mother was proud of me. On another day, weeks later, on another shopping trip, my mother asked me what I had learned recently. I excitedly demonstrated, frog, log, dog, fog. My mother smiled at me and quickly made plans to talk to my teacher.
In that meeting, my mother asked my teacher if I shouldn’t be learning to read by now. No, she was sorry, she replied, I wasn’t ready for that. My mother learned that there were children being taught to read but that I would not be one of them. I watched as other children in my class would pull Go, Dog. Go! off the shelf and slowly but surely puzzle out the words within. I wanted to do that too so badly. The kindergarten year ended without me knowing more than my alphabet, my numbers, how to play nicely with others, and how to recite the worst poetry in the world.
During the summer before I entered first grade, my mother sat with me and books like that one about the speeding canine and did what my teacher hadn’t even tried to do. But I can’t blame that teacher too much. I really was a poor student until I went to college. I was bright but undisciplined, kicked out of advanced programs in both junior high and high school. If I had been born a few years later, I probably would have been diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed drugs to focus me. So, my teacher had me figured out and used her energy on the children whom she expected to get more out of her attention.
My teacher, however, didn’t realize how much being able to read meant to me. My mother may not have either; she just wanted her son to be prepared for school. So over that summer I learned how to read.
On the first day of first grade, we were tested on our reading and math levels. I was immediately put into the highest reading group. From then on, I was constantly reading (though rarely what I was assigned to be reading, I’ll admit). In fifth grade, Ms. Cameron wrote a Halloween story starring her GATE program students, providing a characterization based on what she’d learned about us so far. At one point in the story, I wander away from the mystery involving all of us to read a book.
I love words, all the more because I fought for them. And my mother fought for them with me. At least, that’s how this foundational story goes in my personal history. My mother, it turns out, saw this differently. She remembered trying to teach me to read and failing. She’d expressed this regret to others over the years.
I provided her and my father with more than enough frustration during my school years as I failed classes that I should have mastered. That I well knew. What I didn’t know is that for thirty-five years we had walked around with diametrically opposed views of the events surrounding that summer, ones which filled us with very different emotions. It was one more frustration for her, not directed at me but at herself.
Memories are tricky. I’ve been fooled by them before. I was quite young. Perhaps I’m wrong. But I don’t think I am. Even if I’m wrong about immediately going into the top reading group in first grade, I highly doubt the bitter and spiteful Mrs. Anderson, who filled me with fear and anxiety, succeeded in teaching me much of anything–I left her class barely knowing simple arithmetic. Even if my own desire played a huge part in me figuring out what those letters meant when placed in order, I know my mother was a huge part of it too.
Certainly as far as foundational myths go, the one in which my mother, no matter how unsuited to the task, fought for me and succeeded is one that is more attractive than the one in which she failed. Ultimately, the important part of the story is that she fought for me, and that part is true. So whatever the fine particulars may be, I will continue to believe that I can read because of my mother. I will always be thankful for that.