Friday, January 16, 2009

How I became a big reader

When I was four years old, it was determined that I had been hanging around the house too long, so my parents sent me to a pre-school run by two old ladies, Miss Louella and Miss Virgilia. They lived and did business in a formerly swanky neighborhood of Columbus, in a great old house with a turret that had a stained glass window on the landing. A pleasurable shiver of fear went through me when I went by this window. It was mysterious but exciting.

Miss L and Miss V taught me to set a table properly, to use napkin rings, to say "Yes please" instead of "yes," and "No thank you," instead of "no." They also taught me to read, a skill I learned rather quickly.

When my mother saw that I could read, she started me in school in the second grade, skipping first grade entirely. Mother believed that you shouldn't spend too much time in school, should get it out of the way, graduate from college and go to work as soon as possible. She herself had done this, never taking a summer off, zipping through high school at the age of 14 and graduating from law school before she was old enough to pass the bar exam. (You had to be 21.)

My father also got out of high school at the age of 15 and proceeded to Madison WI, where he went to college. His father was mad at him because they lived in Illinois and he could have attended the University of Illinois a lot cheaper.

I went to school which was very "progressive," which meant they didn't teach you much about anything except the triumphs of the Soviet Union, and let you do more or less what you wanted. Anything practical you wanted to know you taught yourself. For instance, I taught myself the alphabet because I wanted to look up things in the dictionary. Try looking up words if you don't know the alphabet. It's hard.

I emerged from this den of iniquity at the age of 11, when mother gave in and enrolled me in public school junior high. For some reason, perhaps a coin toss, I was placed in the eighth grade. The other kids were 13. Mother also made me wear braids and knee socks. Still, I had friends. I didn't mind junior high; I was in the glee club and practically the citywide spelling champion. I could have aced the spelling competition if I had not been dubious about the spelling of the word "acquaint." I knew there was a C in there but it didn't seem right somehow, so I left the C out. I've always felt bad about this, because within a nanosecond of spelling the word wrong I realized the C definitely belonged in the word.

After junior high came a new town, a new school, a departed father, and High School. When I tell you that I, at age 13, was the champion dork of Central Ohio, I am not exaggerating. I was 13 and a sophomore, alone and miserable and friendless.

So one day I picked up a copy of Pride and Prejudice and read it from cover to cover. It was so good I re-read it immediately. Then I read all the tripe in the school library, much of it consisting of stories of young girls or women who became interested in a career in photography, dance, the theater, or interior decoration while at the same time falling in love with a cute guy. Then I read all the works of P G Wodehouse that the public library---which never discarded a book--had on their shelves.

Ever since then I have had to have two lives going, my real one and the one in the book I was reading. I like to take refuge in a book for a couple of hours a day. If I don't have a book to read, and a stack of other books waiting to be read, I start feeling panicky.

Television, talking books, even music--they don't do it for me. I like all those things, but I need a real book. Hard-covered, paperback, clean, dirty, old or new, trash or masterpiece, I need a book waiting for me to read.


Paul Mitchell said...

Way to go, Mrs. Smarty Pants. "Yes, please" and "No, thank you" are the most respectful things to say. You done be teached good, by Miss V and Miss L.

Books are the most wonderful man made object in this world, without compare. Television is not in the same realm.

This is a wonderful snippet of your life and explains much, thanks.

Anonymous said...

Imagine my pain, then, when I'm reduced to reading the back of a cereal box for the lack of other printed word...and getting lost among public library shelves stacked with names as if from a telephone book: names triggering no literary association in my mind. Who are all those people?!?

Akaky said...

You know, I dont remember learning how to read. My mother says that I was reading at age 2; that's always seemed like a bit of a maternal stretch to me, but unlike a whole host of other things, like math or tying my shoelaces or learning to tell time, which was a real nightmare, reading has always been there, just a fact of life.