Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Day 1,535: Reading Minds

Me, reading in my grandparents' back yard when I was 13 years old.

My kids are both readers. My daughter learned to read when she was 3, as I did. No one remembers teaching me how to read. My mother insists that I could just do it. This doesn't seem possible. Reading is not like walking, or eating. You don't have to do it to survive. Someone has to teach you.

I distinctly remember the hand I played in teaching my daughter to read. She was learning letter sounds in the Montessori method. She was sounding everything out: t-h-e. It drove me crazy. I knew something about my daughter that maybe her school didn't know. She is one of the only people I have ever met who has a photographic memory. I once wrote about her, "your perfect memory is one of the things that makes you who you are." I knew that when she was 15 months old and she pointed to a photography book in my mother's house and said "Signs," which is the name of the book. No one could believe it. Someone said, well, she must have seen that group of symbols before and heard someone say the word Signs and figured out that's what it meant.

Right, I thought. That's reading.

So I got frustrated, as I so often do. It is one of my greatest failings, this impatience. I couldn't stand listening to my kid trying to make English into a phonetic language when it is decidedly not a phonetic language. I had been reading to her all her life, as had so many other people. We taught her her letters over Christmas break when she was 21 months old. So one day when she was 3, I said to her: "Don't sound out these words. Just remember them. This word, these symbols, they say THE. Just remember it." If she had been a different person, it wouldn't have worked. But it worked. She could read anything.

But that doesn't mean that she should read anything, or that she wants to, or that she's ready for all those words out there. It's hard to find books for a kid who can read past the 12th grade level but who is only 8 years old. All the books for teens seem to be about vampires and sex and vampire sex. The Trixie Belden mysteries that I grew up on, that we still have and that I still read, have never captured her interest. She only got through the first Harry Potter, and decided it was too scary. She loves books that bored me to tears as a child: Black Beauty, Heidi, A Little Princess. I was reading Robert Cormier books at her age. My favorite book (oh, the irony!) as a child was The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. Because why wouldn't you love a book about cancer and medical experiments and suicide in third grade? You know, youth--when life is such a fancy.

Youth, when everything is so, so hard, and no one talks about it, so you read about it instead.

Lenny has read every classic "children's" book out there, and these books hardly seem to be children's books at all, not in the way we talk down to kids today by thinking we have to write like we think they talk and assume they can't understand big words or learn to use a dictionary. In these classics, the kids are almost always orphans. Their lives are almost impossibly hard, so they make up these fanciful worlds or they get by with their moxie and sometimes they fall in love at the end and supposedly end up happy but it always seems false and forced like the author just didn't know what else to do. She's read the Ramona books and all kinds of other books and I was beginning to get stumped trying to figure out what to get her to read, and then she read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for school last year. She became completely entranced with Narnia and has now read all seven of the Narnia books at least four times. Just like her father. I have tried to read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, but people, I just don't CARE. Fantasy books never interested me. The Lord of the Rings? God help me. She really wants me to read these books so we can talk about them, and I've really tried, but I have had to tell her that people are different and like different things. She didn't like Trixie Belden, and I don't like Narnia, so we will need to find something else to agree on, and she seems to take this pretty much in stride.

Lenny, reading under a tree while her brother played baseball in the park.

I've found something we can agree on, but I'll get to that in a minute.

My son is a reader too. I thought it would never happen. I got frustrated that he didn't practice reading in school the way my daughter did, because the teacher said he always "chose" math, and I said, well, I want both kids to do all the things, not just the things that are easiest for them to do. People told me boys are different. Well, Augie is different, that's for sure. Different than all the other boys I know. He sat there in silence for an entire hour last night because he lied to me about washing his hands and no one gets away with lying in my house, and he gets so stubborn and impossible he punishes no one but himself, and it's hard to be his mother, or his father, sometimes. I remember hearing stories about how a certain child might have her will broken by her parents, and I remember my mother laughing, and I know she taught me that my impossible and incorrigible will would not rule our house, and so I don't feel guilty, but I get tired of the yelling.

Anyway I was frustrated not because Augie was taking longer to read, but because I was pretty sure he could read and just didn't feel like admitting it. Gabe didn't learn to read until he was 6 and my brother refused to read until age 7, though all of us in the entire family feel like that is kind of a lie. So I didn't really care when my kids learned to read, but the stubbornness was a bit much. Augie would read the sports page soon after his fourth birthday. People would say, oh, he is just looking at the helmet icons and recognizing them. Sure, sure, I would say. Then he would proceed to tell me the scores and tell me about things that had happened in the games he had not watched but that he found out about through READING THE PAPER. I bought him books about football. I read Bob books with him. He got bored and frustrated and wanted us to do it for him (he would lie on a chaise like Cleopatra allowing others to feed him grapes all his life if we allowed it) and so I gave up on it for a while. And one day he just started reading to me. I think he got tired of pretending. He could read his sister's chapter books. He was put in charge of reading to the class. He is now reading all these Star Wars books and some of them are literally more mature than much of what I read, especially the 700 page comic books with tiny print and extremely complex story lines. I don't relate to this at all. I was better off with football. He is reading Lenny's Little House books (she has read all of them, including the ones written after Laura Ingalls Wilder died), and I'm glad they can talk to each other about those books because again, I wasn't into those. I read poetry when I was a kid.

Augie, reading to his preschool class.

When I was in second grade my favorite book was The Witch of Blackbird Pond, but Lenny wasn't into that one. I read books with names like Fast Sam, Cool Clyde, and Stuff. I read books about people who lived in modern times in real cities with real problems. The only two Judy Blume books I liked were Tiger Eyes and Forever. I thought it was realistic the way the girl felt about her father dying in Tiger Eyes, much more realistic than the crap that was being spouted about wanting your period in the other books. Forever seemed somewhat realistic, though how would I know at age 10? I distinctly remember telling myself that no matter what happened in life, I would never have sex with someone who named his penis.

Well ten year old self, your 39 year old counterpart is here to say that at least you kept to that promise.

Sometimes I think we don't need to bond over books, because it is enough to bond over loving to read books. We are old school over here, no matter how much we love our technology. We don't have Kindles and we read the newspaper. Still, Gabe can go on and on with the kids about Star Wars and Narnia and I feel like I must be missing something. Maybe someday Augie will like Harry Potter or Trixie Belden. Maybe he won't want to read about horses and American Girls. Will either of my kids have a bookcase full of poetry and an entire library dedicated to genocide studies when they are grown? Is that a legacy I even want to leave?

Recently, on a whim, I picked out a book called Ruby Holler by Sharon Creech for Lenny. Creech's books were all written after I was grown, or at least after I was 14 or so, so I never read them. Lenny LOVED that book. I ordered a bunch more of her books. Lenny will re-read the same book over and over and over and I try to convince her to try something new. These Creech books have been sitting in her room. I made her bring them on vacation. She sat there re-reading Little House and Narnia. So, I decided to take one of these books with me on the one beach day we've had so far, which was Monday. Since then, I have read three of these books. The first was more of a coming of age story about friends and boys and I understood why maybe Lenny didn't care. The next was also a coming of age story but it was about sailing and adventures and secret code. I practically forced my daughter to read this book and she was all OH OK MOM, WHATEVER. Until later that day when we couldn't pry her away and she looked at me and said:

"Mom. This book is FASCINATING." And we started to go on and on and the guys in this house looked at us like what are they going on about? And I thought I had finally DONE it. I had finally found the thing we could bond over. So I read the last book of hers that we had brought with us, the one that won all the awards: Walk Two Moons. I started this book last night and finished it this morning. I want my daughter to read it and I don't.

Why are the mothers always leaving? Why are the mothers always dead? Why are the fathers always lost in the wake of their absence so much so that you want to reach into the story and tell them to GET IT TOGETHER, there is a CHILD involved, stop making this be all about YOU?

Was childhood always that sad?

And of course, it was. I realize that I have done a great disservice to anyone who reads this blog who thinks they have learned anything about me by reading it. I have never written about the hardest and most formative things. My biggest family secrets are not really secrets at all, as my closest people know, but I don't write about them. I have written about some things, but there are huge gaps, and some people know why. I have written some about Gabe's childhood, and people find it so unbelievable, but I don't, and I never did. I told my brother that it is strange what Gabe and I have in common as far as family is concerned and he said, really? I don't think so. Maybe you knew that about each other when you met. Maybe you could tell.

My brother who didn't want to learn to read became a writer and my husband reads fantasy and I read reality and our son reads epic battles and my daughter reads about orphans. The parents in this family have told ourselves that come hell or high water, our kids will never have the types of hidden stories that we have that make us who we are. We will claim the adversity for ourselves and let them have their childhoods unfettered and carefree.

It's a fiction, and we know it. It's a story we tell in the hopes that it might come true. No one here expects a happy tale, but we would like it to be interesting. We would like to tell each other the story arc and choose our favorite characters.

I once wrote a poem for my husband, who sometimes wonders where my stories are going and if they are going to end. It was a poem about what I had learned from him about marriage. I could not help but get the last word in, so I closed with what I hoped he had learned about marriage from me:

The plot of the story is not the point.
The point is, I am telling it to you.

Gabe reading The Economist while waiting for me to get chemo.

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