I have no memories of being illiterate. Letters were never mysterious symbols that made sense only to grownups. I’m told that from soon after I got glasses – at age 18 months because I was literally walking in to walls – I could read simple three and four letter words. By the time I reached my third birthday I was reading simple picture books. My parents tell a story of seeing me reading “Jaws” at age 5.
This is really nothing to brag about. I did no work. I did not spend hours sitting at the kitchen table with my parents scowling telling me I needed to learn to read or else. My mom just said “Yes” when I asked her to read a book. And when I could I would watch educational shows like Sesame Street that I’m sure helped with understanding better how to read.
And so it happens that I am five years old and at Silver Lake with my extended family. My grandparents, aunts and uncles are there. The air is filled with the algal smell of the lake, pine needles and the burgers my dad and uncle are cooking.
My aunt and my mom are talking and they call me over. In my mom’s hand is “The Monster at the End of This Book” – a Sesame Street picture book that was one of my favourites.
“Read this to your aunt, Todd,” my mom says and I do – just as I’m taught. I read with expression and modulate my voice. And then my I get to my favourite page of the book, the one where despite Grover’s having chained the page shut with heavy padlocks I’m able to turn it anyway. I become Grover and, hand over my forehead, shout, horrified.
The rest of the family, startled, turns to see why I’m so upset and then laughs as they realize I was simply reading aloud. I laugh along with the adults, their reaction feeding my enthusiasm.
Later that summer I am at my grandparents’ house reading The Phantom Tollbooth on the porch. Some older children, a boy of about seven and his older sister two apartments down from my grandmother’s house call over to ask me what I’m doing.
“Sure you are. Prove it.”
And so I come over, and sit down. They watch with grins on their faces, waiting for me to fail. I start reading. They sit down on the floor of the porch in front of me. When my grandmother calls me inside to have dinner, I’m still outside reading to them.
Years go by and things change. I start to spend my days at school. My mom starts to spend her days with beer, starting with only a six-pack or so a day. My dad joins her. Sometimes there’s laughing, but often there’s disturbing yelling. When I am nearing the end of high school my dad retires from the army and gets a job working the overnight shift. He likes to have a few beers after work but now “after work” is 7:00 AM. And nobody likes to drink alone so my mom joins him. She goes for a nap at my dad’s bedtime and then wakes up in the afternoon. And now, because it’s night time for her she’d also like to have a few drinks. So before long she’s up to 12+ beers per day and life at home is as chaotic and stressful as you might imagine.
But I have a secret weapon – one my mom gave me years before. I can read and know the value of reading and knowledge. My teachers become my role models for how to behave. Without having to say a word, they also let me know that there are other ways to live than drinking your life away. My English teacher finishes work and instead of going for a cocktail, she directs a school musical. My Biology teacher likes to mountain bike on the weekends, and my music teacher often joins me and another friend of mine in our local jazz ensemble.
The harder things get at home the more I value the feedback I get at school and the deeper I dig in to my books. When I get home from school I close my door, turn on music loud enough to drown out any noise from the rest of the house and start my homework. When I have no homework, I read everything from pulp science-fiction to Dickens. Inspired by books I read I work with friends to make homemade pyrotechnics, carve sandstone arrowheads, or even set up an aquarium stocked with fish, crawdads, and aquatic insects we catch at the nearby river and that I sustain with bits of hot dog I steal from the fridge.
It may take me until I’m 19 to move my body and things from my parents’ house, but my mind and soul move out when I am thirteen. Every success I have in life will stem from this “move” and this move would not have been possible without the gift of reading.
Eight years after I move out of my parents’ house, I have a child of my own. In so many ways he has been raised differently than I was. But we are absolutely certain to repeat one parenting choice.