Monday, July 23, 2012

On Learning to Read

Of everything I have learned in my life, I consider reading the most important skill I have ever acquired. My first introduction to, and my continued love of reading, I contribute to my parents.  From my earliest memories I remember my parents reading to me. As you will discover from reading this blog, my parents did not read in the same manner as most parents read to their children.  However, it should be noted that I was always supplied with my own the print version of every book that my parents read to me.

My mother, who lost her vision in an accident at age six, would put in her order to the state library to borrow children’s books transcribed from print to Braille. These books were very large measuring 1 foot wide by 1 foot long and were anywhere from 2-3 inches thick. Braille is produced on thick paper and words produced in Braille take up 3-4 times as much space as a printed word. Also, many of these books contained palpable pictures made of cut cloth, felt, sticks, bits of wood, furry fabrics and other various materials so that the blind child could feel the pictures described in the corresponding story - hence the book’s size. I remember sitting on the sofa next to my mother with half of the open book across my lap and watch my mother’s fingers flit rapidly across the raised dots on the page as she read the story to me. When a picture was added to the story, I would draw my mother’s attention to it and have her touch it as I described for her in detail what the picture portrayed. Sometimes, I would close my eyes and touch the picture with my own fingers to see if I could discern it by touching it without looking at it with my eyes. I would also run my fingers over the small raised bumps of Braille, but I could not read the words that were written there. I must admit that I did not at first find my print books quite as interesting as the Braille books until later when I discovered the meaning print of letters. 

My father, who was born legally blind, (meaning that he was unable to see clearly the top letter, number, or shape at the top of the eye chart from 20 feet away), also shared stories with me. Although my father could read Braille, he preferred to listen to stories read aloud on Talking Books. These recorded books were also borrowed from the state library, and when I was a child they were recorded on records. My father’s stories were very different than the stories my mother read to me. While my mother read the classic fairy tales and nursery rhymes, my father shared with me the high adventure stories and literature. I remember sitting with my father and listening to the record player reading stories by such authors as Jules Verne’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”  C. S. Lewis’s “The Chronicles of Narnia” and Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, just to name a few. After listening to a chapter or two, my father would discuss the story with me thus far. He would ask questions, I later realized, to make sure that I understood the story, and explain things that I didn’t understand. My mother often told him that I was too young to understand all these things. And while I didn’t always understand everything about each story at that time, the explanations he gave came back to me later when I was older and reading these books on my own.  As with the stories my mother read to me, I was also given my own copy of these books, but unlike the fairy tale and nursery rhyme books these books did not contain as many illustrations. As I sat listening to these stories, I would open my own book and run my finger beneath each printed word. I knew there was meaning to these marks ordered in lines on the paper, but again, I still couldn’t put it all together.

When I reached the age of four, my parents enrolled me into nursery school. It was here that I learned about letters, and that when certain letters were placed together in a particular order, they formed words. I was not taught to read words in nursery school, other than my name and to write it, however the idea of figuring out this puzzle fascinated me. I began to pay more attention to the printed words in my books, and it was while listening to “Alice in Wonderland”  that I first began to recognize small and repetitive words such as ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘if’, ‘of’, and so on. I remember the feeling when I discovered that I was beginning to solve this reading mystery – it was overwhelming, as if a whole new door of my brain opened and everyday things became all bright and shiny and new. It was like Dorothy opening the door to her house after she landed in the land of OZ. I began to copy the words I recognized on paper, and then I copied larger words I did not know. I would spell out the larger words to my parents and ask them what words the letters spelled. I was obsessed with finding out as much as I could, and I could not wait until I could read books all by myself.

I don’t remember what book I read by myself, but I do remember the first book I bought with my own money.  It was during my last week of kindergarten and my school was holding a used book sale in the gymnasium. I was six-years-old and could read quite a bit by then. I had a dime in my pocket and entered the gymnasium thinking I would not find anything that I could afford. I was very wrong about that – the books were very cheap and as I walked the isles of books spread out on long tables I looked thinking that the book that was meant for me I would recognize as my own. I looked and looked and then I saw it. It was very old, its cover was grey and faded and the pictures and lettering were brown. But I did not care about the condition of the book for it was the title of the book that made it clear to me that it was mine. The book’s title was “Now We Are Six” by  A. A. Milne, and as I had just turned six a couple of months previous, I believed this book was sitting on that table waiting for me to purchase it. The price for this gem was five cents which was clearly handwritten on the books cover. Of course, I bought it, and it is still one of my prized possessions. The minute I arrived home I printed my name and the year I purchased it inside the front cover. Later, after learning to write long-hand I wrote my name and address inside the book.  (See photos below)

Over the summer months I read this, my very own book bought with my own money from cover to cover. Not only did this book introduce me to new words and interesting characters, it also introduced me to poetry, some of which I memorized and will still come to me in relative circumstances.  For instance, if I have a cold or a bad allergy attack the poem “Sneezles and Wheezles” pops into my head; or if I am craving time alone the poem “Solitude” comes to me out of nowhere.  Odd how the things you can read stay with you through the years. Or, maybe it’s not odd at all.

I’ve read many books through the years, too many to either count or remember. (I should have followed my father’s advice and kept a journal of every book that I read). My favorite genres are science fiction, fantasy, and horror, but I read other genres as well. Poetry is still close to my heart which is probably why I dabble at writing it. My parents taught me many things during the course of my life, however, I believe that the most important gift they gave me after life, was the gift of the love of reading.

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