A Portrait of the Linguist as a Young Dorky Girl

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.

Don't even ask me why I was smiling like that.

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.

Helen Keller (Image courtesy of Educational Synthesis)

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.

All growed up.

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.

30 thoughts on “A Portrait of the Linguist as a Young Dorky Girl

  1. First of all, what a great piece of writing – as per usual. But look at you – breaking out the pictures! Woot! Woot! She’s coming out of her shell, people! I wish you lived closer to me because I would sooo hang out with you every day. We could talk about books and dangling participles. Sigh. And by the way, most boys are still dummmmiiiiiiieees! ;-)
    If you’d like to see my high school horror, check out this link:

    • Thanks!
      Yup, I figured this was as good a time as any to finally show a picture. We would definitely have fun hanging out! Next time I’m up visiting my friend in the Finger Lakes (well, not in the lakes…), we can bond over a shared love of bad grammar and good books!

      Awesome pictures of you today :)

    • Y’know, I think your grandmother was on to something! It totally looks like I’m witnessing a murder or something and that’s my “I saw nothing! I saw nothing!” face ;)

      Thanks for coming over for a look-see!

    • I just couldn’t get enough. She still is an inspiring figure for me. I don’t know if this is a reason for or an early sign of my interest in Deaf Ed and ASL.

    • Thanks for stopping by!

      Those butterfly socks were awesome. I even wrote a story about them in high school that got me accepted into a summer children’s writing workshop (which I actually didn’t attend because my parents didn’t allow me to sleep over anywhere but T’s house!)

  2. This is my first visit to your blog. Love it! I should have jaunted over sooner.

    I was in K in 1977. I loved every minute but also could not believe other classmates weren’t reading. So I entertained myself by writing a “book”, made a hard cover out of a cereal box, and had the teacher read it during circle time. I was SO proud.

    Love your shirt. I had similar items my mom sewed.

    My post is not nearly as interesting as yours. But here it is: http://sixringcircus.com/2011/06/01/school-photo-day/

    • Thanks, Annie! I’m glad you stopped by. I think that’s awesome that your teacher read your book during circle time. A supportive teacher at that age is so important.

      Your post was great. I always like reading about people’s impressions of NYC and I’m glad you got to see the Towers, too. While I didn’t grow up in the city, I spent plenty of time there and of course it seemed like a normal place to me. I was shocked to realize how different the rest of the country was/is. I’ll never forget one occasion in college when friends and I went to dinner in downtown Tampa. I was sure they had gotten us lost when we pulled up and they said “We’re here!” I said, “But you said we were going downtown. This is downtown???” I wasn’t trying to be snooty or anything – I just didn’t quite understand that cities came in other sizes. At least not cities that I perceived as major cities.

  3. Aw – this is so sweet. I confess before I scrolled down, I was all set to pooh-pooh your disparaging comments about your kindergarten photo. However, that is one doozy of a grin! (You were still adorable though.)

    Another cracking post – you managed to wrap in the story of how you developed a lifelong love of reading with a touching tale of lifelong friendship. Beautiful, I say, just beautiful.

    Thanks for the link love and for joining us for school picture day!

    • I don’t think I smiled for another school picture for years! I developed this weird half-smile that I still actually have on occasion.

      Thanks for the sweet comment and also for getting this all together! It’s such a creative way to get people together. Your pictures were so great – and they also reminded me that I was in drama club too, though only until 10th grade. And I was on the yearbook staff, too.

  4. I was giggling all through your post, Limr! That was my kindergarten experience too! I learned to read at age 3, and was reading chapter books by the time I was in kindergarten…Dick and Jane=pure torture for me! My parents used to take us to the library every Saturday. I would take six books home, and have them all done by Wednesday…of course, I’d have to wait for the weekend before I could go back to the library!

    I felt infinitely superior to the other kids (which is probably why I didn’t have a lot of friends)…

    Great post!


    • I kind of wish I could watch myself on that first day. I remember being alternatively intimidated by all the other kids and utterly bored with them. That was the start of not being in the popular crowd :) I also spent many hours in the library. Luckily it was close by so my mother was willing to bring me almost as often as I’d wanted.

      Thanks for stopping by! Glad you enjoyed the visit :)

  5. Great story. I also had a high school relationship that involved very long letters. I might write 10 or so pages but got 30 or more in return. Another thing I tossed that I wished I hadn’t. Thanks for joining us!

    • I did get rid of a lot of those 50-pagers, mostly because half of the pages were basically reports on Casey Kasem’s American Top 40 for that week. Though come to think of it, that could be a nifty little bit of music archive right now! Oh well. I do have most of the other letters I’ve written and received over the years.

      Thanks for your part in setting this all up. It was a great idea and has been a lot of fun!

  6. I love it! I wish I would have been paying attention to participate in this. I have one doozy of a kindergarten pic. Complete with missing front teeth (I lost ’em early), cat-eyed glasses, and a cheesy smile. I think you look way cute in your K picture! Wonderful writing! :)

    • It’s not too late! Come on, you can get a post together for tomorrow…you know you want to…all the other kids are doing it… :)

      Seriously, come out and play! :)

  7. Great photos! I love your writing, and you definitely picked the right field. Linguistics come naturally for you. My favorite part was in the last part where you talked about flirting with Journalism – fantastic stuff! I’ll have to keep visiting! I love how days like School Photo Day bring people together.

    I posted about my days in marching band: http://www.newlifecalu.com/?p=734. Thanks for sharing your story!

    • Thanks Kim! Sometimes I still wonder about what Journalism would have been like – I certainly would have gotten a head start on launching a writing career! But I don’t know if it would have been as much fun ;)

      School Photo Day has indeed been a ton of fun. I’ve so enjoyed reading everyone else’s great posts (yours was great and I’m trotting off to comment now! :) )

  8. I really like that class picture – reminds me of many of mine! And just about the same year, too! My kids go through the same thing you did, in kindergarten – “THEY’RE ALL DUUMMMIIIIIEEEES!” I just thank God they inherited daddy’s math genes, and language genes from both of us.

    • I wish I’d had some inherited math genes! That would have made my life much easier at times. I think I got language genes from both my parents: my mother’s English is more accurate and her vocabulary larger, but my father’s English, albeit broken, was very good considering he didn’t even start learning until he was in his 40s, and after already being fluent in 3 other languages.

  9. Hello, Ms. L.
    I’m not sure I should be here. I had to access my dictionary to refresh my memory of the word linguist. Daunting. I am merely monolingual. :)
    How wonderful that you are going to be T’s best woman in September. Coincidence that you spent your first day of school together during the month of September?

    Thank you for visiting my blog today. Something tells me, I’ll be reading more of your posts. I enjoyed this one. Thank you!
    ~ Lenore

    • Hey, I never thought about that, but you’re right – we met in September so we’ll have known each other for exactly 35 years :) One more reason I’ll probably be weeping like a fool on that day :)

      You mentioned how many ways your name has been mispronounced. I think I got all the ones you did, but the worst one I experienced was from a friend’s father who used to call me “Lorinell.” ?!?!? That’s not even a name! Yup, we oddly named women need to stick together :) Your blog has been bookmarked and I’ll surely be back!

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