Thursday, January 26, 2012

Forever Free

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." 
-- Frederick Douglass

I remember learning to write.  I was given a string of phonetic symbols for every sound in the English language and for that reason I could write anything.  I felt so powerful.  Spelling wasn't a problem.  All I needed was time.  However, I don't remember learning to read at all.  I must have breezed through that because I can never remember not knowing what all of those letters meant. I remember getting a prize in first grade for reading the most books and I still have my prize: a book, of course.  

I have always loved to read.  So many books and words of wisdom from writers have touched my heart throughout my lifetime.  I remember crying in my blue room in Illinois over the heartbreak of Old Yeller.  I fondly hold a collection of over 50 Nancy Drew yellow and black hardbacks, beginning with one of my favorites: The Secret of the Old Clock.  I was right alongside the young girl in Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret wondering where my boobs were. As an adolescent, I triumphed with Scarlett O'Hara and detested passive and perfect Melanie in Gone with the Wind.  I snuck books into virtually all of my classes in high school.  My reading was insatiable.  In college, it was destiny that I would gravitate to an English major.  Writing and reading as homework??? Perfect.  I sat in awe as my English professor recited John Milton's Paradise Lost from memory and made those densely woven words sensible through his passion alone.  I had the privilege of reading Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams, Thoreau, Emerson, and, of course, Shakespeare.  

Throughout any difficulty in my life, I have found a book that has soothed my soul.  Martha Beck's book Expecting Adam became my mantra about having a child with Down Syndrome.  Where is God When It Hurts? helped me to make sense of leukemia and fear.  Maya Angelou helped in so many ways on so many days.  

It was only natural that when I had kids the reading would take on a new richer, more amazing dimension.  Sitting with a child on your lap, laughing at Dr. Seuss, wondering with Roald Dahl, rhyming with Margaret Wise Brown makes any day pure magic.  I remember riding bikes with Jack the summer of third grade down to grab the newest Harry Potter, number three -- The Prisoner of Azkaban -- and oohing and aaahing over the hardback book, all 435 pages.  The warmth of the sunshine, the gift of another epic installment about Harry and Hermione and Ron, the joy of watching Jack enthralled made that moment one of my sweetest memories.  We had the thrill of waiting up until midnight for the subsequent Harry Potters, dressing up, cheering with the crowds and devouring the books within days of their release. I am forever grateful to JK Rowling and her imagination!  Her books lit a fire within Mary Kate as well, along with Junie B. Jones, Judy Moody and our tear-inducing favorite Charlotte's Web.

One of the first things that I read after Patrick was born was that the French school system did not believe it was possible to teach a person with Down Syndrome to read.  They actually stated that any evidence of someone with Down Syndrome reading was equivalent to training a monkey!! It was a trick, not reality.  I remember getting my momma bear claws out and chiding whoever wrote that crap in my head: "Oh yeah, maybe that's true for all the French kids but look out -- my kid's no monkey!  Get out of my way.  My kid is going to read."

In preschool and kindergarten he focused on letter sounds and sight words and in first grade he was given a scientist of reading for a teacher, Mrs. Thompson.  I had complete faith in her ability to teach Patrick, along with 34 other first graders, how to break that code.  Two weeks into school I had a meeting with her.  I'm sure she doesn't remember the exchange at all, but to me, Patrick's literacy hung in the balance.  I asked her if he was going to be a good fit in her classroom.  Did she think he could learn in there.  With no hesitation, she assured me he could be there and that he would learn to read.  Five years later, almost every night Patrick reads to me and almost every night I sit in awe as I hear his voice wrap around the words in print.  Some nights, I can't help it and silent tears just come streaming down.  My boy can read!

That might not seem like much when you've never had a memory of not knowing what those crazy scratches on paper meant but I'm reading a book right now called Life is So Good.  It is the true story of George Dawson, a black man who did not learn to read until he was 98! Listening to the times he was in a restaurant and couldn't order off of a menu, feeling the times he knew he was cheated because someone realized he couldn't read, and knowing how many posters, newspapers, books, magazines, billboards, tickets, medicine bottles, doctors orders, cards, letters and life opportunities just passed him by  like leaves blowing off of a tree makes me cringe.  It's impossible to imagine being so cut left isolated and ashamed.

As I listen to a little voice sound out children's books beside me and feel that familiar curl of coziness as Caroline climbs aboard for another adventure I think of George.  There is so much grace in shared stories, the written words of people from past ages sharing their observations and the beauty of letters coming together in a way that hasn't happened before.  Reading is a comfort and sense of belonging to all of humanity; it's a highlighter pen for places to visit or people to meet, a spark that lights a fire, and a salve for the deepest wounds.

Today I'm grateful that I was given an opportunity to learn to read and know the love and power that comes from being able to seek information for yourself.  I'm grateful for the educational opportunities that my children have been given -- for the schools and the teachers that believed in them.  I'm grateful to live in a place where ALL children are educated and I'm profoundly moved that I can continue the circle of education with beginning teachers.  Today, I'm going to appreciate print and the immeasurable joy reading has given me my entire life and I'm going to finally find out who taught George to read..


  1. Beth, this is so beautiful and so wonderfully captures how I feel about reading and writing. You perfectly expressed the gift that literacy is. I love reading with Patrick and Caroline!! Oh one of my favorite things! love it.

  2. I love your story, makes me want to whip out the Harry Potter with my kids... if only it were bed time.

    I love that you didn't listen to anyone and everyone who told you your son would not read!