Today is School Photo Day, conceived of and founded by Educlaytion, Ironic Mom, and Keenie Beanie, three fantastic bloggers with fun, creative ideas for community-building. If they weren’t so great, I wouldn’t even think about breaking out the goofy kindergarten picture, but (deep breath) here it is, along with a little discussion about reading:
The year was 1976. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was number one at the box office, and it was still another nine months or so before Star Wars. Punk Rock had become an official genre, even though disco was still going strong. Nadia Comaneci had won 3 Olympic gold medals in gymnastics with perfect scores. Jimmy Carter had been elected President, and The United States was 200 years old, but I was only five. This is where I start my story.
On a sunny day in early September, I was in the driveway, playing with my Lemon Twist and waiting for the bus. I was very excited because it was the first day of kindergarten. It was actually my first experience with school of any kind. I am the youngest of five and that alone provided me with enough preparation for the scary world of public education, so pre-school didn’t seem necessary. In addition, I was armed with the knowledge that my new friend whom I’d met at registration would be in the same class. The very best part, though, was that I wore my new jean skirt and top that my mother had made, and some awesome butterfly knee socks. (Um…1976, remember?)
As the story goes, I came home from school crying. I couldn’t believe I had spent the entire half-day playing some games, taking a nap, and watching boys try to impress each other by shooting milk out of their noses. “But they’re all duuuuummmmiiiiies!” I wailed to my mother when she told me I had to go back the very next day. “They can’t even READ!”
I know this makes me sound like one of those obnoxious children that are now called ‘precocious’, but I really had no way of knowing that most children learn to read in or after kindergarten, not before. After all, my new best friend (there were no BFFs yet) could also read, so why couldn’t the other kids? Why did I have to play in the pretend kitchen when I just wanted to learn all the same cool things that my older siblings were doing at school? Why couldn’t I just be left alone in a corner with a book?
I realize now that I had three incredible advantages that helped foster my reading and writing skills: my family, my best friend, and my first teacher. I don’t remember how I learned how to read, but clearly, my family had a major role. My mother would read to me, but she was also busy with four other children and a husband to take care of, so I was often in the care of siblings or myself. Because they usually couldn’t be bothered with their pesky baby sister, they probably wanted me to learn how to read fast so they could get me out of their hair.
So I don’t know how I actually learned, but once I did, it was constantly encouraged. I was told, for example, that I couldn’t go outside to play until I read something. As a result, one the first books I read on my own was a children’s version of the biography of Helen Keller. Eleven times. I ran my fingers over the example Braille sentence on the back cover so often that I wore it smooth. No more Braille.
We had a decent collection of books and library membership, but I’d read all the books in the house that were at my level, and – ‘precocious’ as I was – I wasn’t quite ready to take on A Tale of Two Cities just yet. So when school started, I was excited to learn how to read the Big Books.
It was then that I met T at registration for school. Our mothers were busy with paperwork and we started talking. As it turned out, her surname was only one letter different from mine, so we were not only in the same class, but were always next to each other in seating charts or lines to the gym and cafeteria. As I mentioned, she too could read, and we started to compare notes. Once again, I was able to develop my love of reading in an environment of encouragement and shared love of books. No one ever made me feel weird or ashamed of reading.
The place where this burgeoning skill could have been thwarted was in the classroom. This was the mid-seventies: the era of no walls in schools, the inclusion of everyone in mainstream classrooms, the shift of focus to the lowest-achieving students, and the denial of federal funding to schools who didn’t agree with this new philosophy. As the only two students in my kindergarten class who could read, T and I could have been screwed. The assumption was that more attention needed to be paid to the lowest performers in the class to bring them up to speed. The more capable students were left alone, presumably because we could learn on our own, so why would we need a teacher’s attention?
Luckily, my third saving grace came into play. I had a teacher who recognized that T and I needed attention as well, and as other students had nap time or played Duck Duck Goose during recess, she would bring us aside to sit in the play kitchen for reading lessons. Once again, the value of good reading and language skills was reinforced. Because of her, we flourished and established the solid foundation we needed to continue reading.
In first grade, I blew through our self-paced course of reading, going through one entire reader in the time it took other students to do one chapter in that reader. In second grade, I was given special permission to take books out from the Big Shelves usually reserved for fourth grade or higher. This was also the year I won my first prize for writing.
T and I remained friends, even when assigned to different classrooms in fourth grade. We survived puberty together by writing long, rambling letters to each other, sometimes as long as 50 pages. We had our first and only major fight in high school that resulted in not speaking for about two months. We wrote letters to each other all through college and grad school (for me) or medical school (for her). In September, I will be the Best Woman at her wedding.
A love of reading and language has been my constant companion. It kept me sane through rough times at school. It brought me top grades in English and History, and a writing scholarship for my first year at college where I intended to major in English Literature. Once I started university, however, new worlds opened up. I flirted pretty seriously with Journalism until my sophomore year when I took Introduction to Linguistics. We got along so well; I laughed at its jokes and we spent long evenings together. I suddenly understood that it wasn’t just the product – reading and writing – that I loved, but the very tool itself – language. And thus, a linguist was born.