Sunday, August 10, 2014

Learning to Read

One of my earliest memories: I’m two or three years old. I have a shiny black plastic revolver with a white handle that has a star and a horse’s head embossed on it. I walk into the entryway between the living room and kitchen, gun drawn. I tell my father to leave my sister alone.

My sister’s crying and my father’s still breathing heavily from his last round of yelling at her. When I speak up, already mumbly, my dad looks at me. He smiles because I’m too young to scold that way, and as nicely as he can manage tells me to go away.

In my first revelation of my own futility, I do leave.

It wasn’t until I was five that my father started teaching me to read, the first in a series of lessons that my father first tried on my sister, then applied to me (algebra and a capstone course on driving an automobile would follow).

The reading lessons involved an elaborate system of hand-written index cards that built from phonics to language to more advanced vocabulary. At a time when I wanted nothing more than to play with my He-Man or WWF action figures, teaching me to read was my father’s pet project. He made me promise not to tell my mother about our lessons.

I went to kindergarten in the mornings, came home for lunch, and then proceeded to my reading lessons. In actuality, the lessons couldn’t have lasted much longer than a school year--probably only a few months, but from a child’s perspective and without the experience to formulate temporal context, this period of my life stretched on for an eternity. Reading flashcards. Hearing the growl in my father’s voice as he grew irritated when I couldn’t master a word or sound. Shrinking when it came time for him to yell at me, sobbing when he called me a wimp for crying too easily. He’d smack the back of my head, sometimes with his hand, more often with the rubber bottom of a fuzzy blue slipper.

I’ll openly acknowledge that it’s absurd that a fuzzy blue slipper would be an object of trauma and terror from my childhood. But when you can associate such a device with the first time your intelligence, your masculinity, and your value as a human being were each implicitly called into question, even the most domestic accessory can bear new weight.

When I tell folks I’m a writer, more than a few people have identified an immediate connection that I must have loved to read.

I find this ironic. Because they say that I must have loved to read in the past tense, as though reading were not an activity that could have transcended adult life. More so because, in fact, I did not love to read for most of my childhood, and in fact only embraced reading fully later in life.

I knew that I was supposed to like reading as a child, but I preferred writing my own stories or playing Nintendo, and didn’t read much more than the average kid. A handful of books captured my imagination. Patricia C. Wrede’s Dealing With Dragons, the first book I read multiple times. Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, which my mother started reading aloud to me but we never got to the end of. (Note: I revisited Jurassic Park and read it over the course of a week in my twenties. It was heartbreaking how poor the prose were from the vantage point of years as a reader, after I’d built up the novel in mind for over a decade.)

In middle school, I became infatuated with basketball, which opened a gateway to reading through a new lens. I devoured The Jordan Rules and tell-alls by Wilt Chamberlain, Pat Riley, Dennis Rodman, and countless others.

In high school, I started reading newspapers. Then I discovered John Irving. I read A Prayer for Owen Meany over the summer between my sophomore and junior years; The Cider House Rules the following spring, The World According to Garp immediately afterward. Add in The Catcher In the Rye, 1984, The Great Gatsby, and a handful of other key titles and for the first time in my life, I actively loved reading.

My voluntary reading regimen waned in college, when I mostly read for class and for my newspaper editing job. I was a little slack in the years to immediately follow undergrad, as I navigated my first pockets of adult free time as well as my first minefield of cohabitation with a significant other.

Then I moved to Maryland. Away from the people and places I knew, into a one bedroom apartment where my downstairs neighbor was all too ready to slam a broomstick against her ceiling if I made noise via such raucous activities as pacing the floor or laughing out loud.

So I read.

I’m a creature of routine and systems. I took to reading two books at a time. Set the arbitrary objective of reading at least (an average of) two books per month. One serious, literary read (novels, short story collections, weighty memoirs). One frivolous read (pop or YA literature, celebrity memoirs). I’ll read from the lighter book first thing in the morning, over a bowl of cereal and a glass of orange juice, seated at the very same kitchen table, migrated from my childhood home, where my father taught me to read. It's how I ease into the day and turn on my brain. I’ll read the heavier book when I don’t want to be social over lunch, between sets at the gym, and into the late hours of the night.

The act of reading is, of course, vital to my writerly aspirations. But moreover, it has become a key way in which I access the world. A way I continue to learn and understand. A way in which I empathize. A way in which I escape.

To think that my entry to reading was one filled with tears. That I was such a frightened little boy.

I don’t know that it’s hyperbole to say I hated my father more than I loved him at that stage of my life, when I was too young for much emotional nuance. Just the same, I like to think that reading stories of a thousand scoundrels and misfits and fools have helped me to distinguish between a villain and someone who’s living his life the best he knows how, even if the results skew toward calamity.

And for each revelation of this ilk that I find, not through self-reflection or the passage of time so much as the simple act of reading, I am grateful for the words so many writers, great and small, have contributed to the world. I’m grateful for my capacity to consume these words. And I can view my father, not through the sights of a plastic six-shooter or the blur of tears, but for what he is, as the man who delivered the gift of literacy to me, clumsy as he may have been in the teaching.

I can turn the page.

No comments:

Post a Comment