Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Reading... a salvation and an addiction

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As long as my memory serves, I’ve been an avid reader. I have no memory of reading painfully slowly, struggling with phonics, frustrated with the meanings or pronunciation of words except when I was required to read ancient classics written in Old Spanish in college. If you’ve ever seen Old English, it’s the same deal: in the usage of the day, everything was different: sentence structure, syntax, even letters used differently and cultural references to things I had no clue about. I moaned frequently and loudly, hunched over my English-Spanish dictionary, which didn’t even contain many of the antiquated word forms. It could take an hour to read one page and I finally resorted to Cliff Notes when available.

So, I do have conscious memories of the frustration of trying to decode weird symbols on the page into some sort of meaning, but for all the memory I have of any difficulties learning to read English, I might have popped out of the womb asking when we could go to the library.

Following a rather crooked path to get there, I ended up pursuing an elementary teaching certificate with a master’s degree in the teaching of reading. I was engaged with hundreds of first graders in that fascinating adventure into literacy that was often frustrating for all concerned parties: the children who thought they would know how to read by the end of the first day, the parents who thought they should be speed reading by Parents’ Night in October and I, who always thought I could be doing something differently or better to help my students shine.

While the process of learning to read seems almost magical when the disparate bits coalesce into “Aha!” moments, I concluded that there is no one magic solution or timetable, in spite of the trends that swept through educational thinking, promising success for all. Each child is unique in the talents they bring, their interests and motivations, their experiences at home, and their readiness to learn. One year I had one student who was five and reading his parents’ medical texts and another who could not read or write her own name. Each child has their own mix of visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning styles with brains functioning in every conceivable way except predictably. I favored the language-experience method, using the children’s experiences and story-telling abilities, bolstered by phonics and linguistics. Phonics rules alone may not bring success, for English has borrowed words from many languages, so it is much more irregular than Spanish or Finnish in the sound-symbol relationships. For example, if you encountered the fabricated word “ghoti”, how would you pronounce it using phonics skills? Using selected references, the gh is pronounced as in “tough”, the o as in “women”, the ti as in “motion”, so ghoti would be pronounced “fish”. Another telling example is “secede”. The s and c have the same sound and each e is pronounced differently. ESL students, beware!

Reading aloud to children from infancy on (or maybe even in utero) is the best way to foster a successful reader who loves language. Both my parents were readers, so we always had an abundance of books and magazines available, and it never occurred to me then that some people didn’t. The written word gave me an avenue into so many worlds and minds; an ongoing foray into learning; a salvation from boredom; a launch pad into fascination, dread, and wonder; and sometimes a cesspool of tedious but necessary details; and with it all, a lifelong addiction.

If I don’t know where my next fix is coming from, the feeling of uneasiness can quickly accelerate to anxiety. OMG, I’m almost done with this one, what will I read next? All I have left is Ten Easy Steps to Improve Everything in Your Life in the Next Five Days and I’m not that ambitious today. Can I get to the library in time? I’ll get the “We Are Not Amused” look if I go in at seven minutes to closing (and rightfully so.) Maybe I can borrow one from a friend...if they’re gone, should I sneak in and take one, leave a note? The bookstore’s closed, but there’s that free lending library on the sidewalk outside of Piragis. Maybe I can reread a favorite or find some short stories to hold me over. All I know is, I NEED a book.

At the bottom of the pile of books on my radiator, I’ll find one that will ease the pain, at least for the evening. I sigh and relax until I realize the library will be closed the next day. More existential dread. It’s not easy being an addict. I’ve tried to cut back, searched for an appropriate 12-step group, checked out books I know I won’t enjoy very much, even tried cold turkey: no reading at all until my house is totally organized. That lasted about 24 hours.

Reading, like any addiction, can be dangerous. People have been known to stumble off sidewalks into traffic or manholes attempting to read while walking. Some even read while driving which is really scary to imagine. I did try reading on the back of a motorcycle once on a long distance trip, but the wind kept grabbing my book.

And once I nearly burned our house down. You see, I’ve read myself to sleep since I was quite young, slipping into other realities, dozing off with the authors’ images slipping into my dreams. My mom thought I should be sleeping and would come to my room, say goodnight, and turn off my light. I’d wait a few minutes until the coast was clear, then I’d read with a flashlight under the covers. However, once when I was about twelve, I had one of those lights that clip to the headboard and I set it down on the bed so the light wouldn’t be obvious…and fell asleep. I was dreaming I smelled cigar smoke and woke up to find my mattress smoldering. Horrified, I grabbed a sponge from the bathroom and dabbed at the mattress, which did nothing; then poured glass after glass of water on it, still without success. I was terrified my parents were going to kill me, but I had no choice but to wake them up, giving up the hope that I might somehow conceal the burnt mattress until I could run away from home or go to college or something. I did realize that destroying a mattress would be more easily forgiven than burning down the whole house. We dragged the smoking mattress out on the lawn, and by the time I came home from school, there was only the metal skeleton remaining. I guess my parents were forgiving, but the experience did nothing to curb my nighttime reading.

I’ve known people who are word addicts, intrigued by words in isolation, ruminating over crossword puzzles, exulting when they successfully decipher clues and can insert the correct word in 3 Across, often a word that seldom sees the light of day otherwise. A friend of mine is a singer/songwriter who loves to play with words when talking on the phone, covering a page with columns of rhyming words like other people doodle.

I usually prefer my words in clumps, dancing together to weave a story, but I do love many individually that are just fun to say, like kerfuffle, pontificate, exonerate, curmudgeon, or sasquatch. Some of my favorites are Yiddish which offers a plethora of delicious, expressive words that are great to chew on: chutzpah, kvetch, bubelah, farshtunken, shlep, shtick, shlimazel, shmuts, shmaltz, oy vey, oy gevalt and just plain oy. However you like your words served up, just keep reading to those kids until they demand to read to you and you’ll give them lifelong access to all that can be imagined.

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