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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Unlikely Beginning for a Love of Books

I’m honored to be participating in Writers Who Kill, a blog for and about mystery and crime fiction authors and fans.

Before I could even think about writing my own ideas, I had to become a reader. Many writers tell about their love of reading from a very early age. Fortunately for me, that is not an important criterion. Reading came to me only with great difficulty.

When I was a small child, my parents and aunts read or told us stories, often after we were tucked in bed. A not particularly observant child, I never connected the actual books with the stories.

Later, when I got to school, the teachers were using an early version of what we now call whole language, as opposed to traditional phonics, as their instructional method. We were individually assessed, all reading the same passage. I had a good memory, and I knew when it was my turn and the book was on the page with the little dog running, I was supposed to say, "Run, Spot, run. See Spot run?" just as the ten students
before me had said. So of course I said it. And ended up in the highest reading group, where once again, I learned quickly what I should say for each page.
Those little symbols at the bottom of the page? They were odd, but they seemed to have no purpose, so I ignored them. I don’t remember ever being called on first for a new page, so I continued, totally clueless, in the highest reading group. My mother had her doubts about my reading ability, but she had several younger children who kept her busy, and the teacher assured her I was doing quite well, so she tried not to worry.

I could print my name and the alphabet, but I still failed to make any connection between that and the symbols in the books. In the younger grades, most material is presented several different ways, and once again my memory stood me in good stead. Each class was about 50 students, and most of the teachers had a morning and an afternoon class. Supplies, like paper, were limited. We had no workbooks. Given the situation, very little written work was required of us, and we seldom handed in work to be corrected. Homework consisted of projects. I always selected the poster or shadow box options, rather than a report.

At some point, I believe third grade, a devastating instructional change ensued. We were expected to read textbooks independently, and much of the material supplemented, rather than reiterated, what the teacher presented in class. And we started cursive writing.

I was completely lost. Since my grades had been good before, teachers concluded I wasn’t "trying." No one wondered or cared why I wasn’t trying, just that obviously I was being obstinate and that called for drastic measures. I was kept in during recess and after school, staring at a blank piece of paper on which I had printed my name but not written it properly in cursive, further evidence of my unwillingness to cooperate. There was talk of holding me back to repeat third grade.

My mother, fortunately, still doubted my ability to read, but she wasn’t about to second-guess professional educators, so she didn’t intervene. When that disastrous school year came to a close, she asked one of my aunts, who was a teacher, to assemble reading instruction material and told me that I was not going out to play with the other kids after our chores were done but rather stay in and work on my reading until after lunch.

My aunt brought the materials and gave me a few lessons in phonics. I was fascinated. Those little symbols had sounds associated with them? I had dozens of flash cards and lists.

The summer was a long one. I threw tantrums and cried on a daily basis. My mother was coldly furious most of the time and my aunt came by occasionally to check on my progress. And in spite of everything, I did make progress. I really did want to learn to read.

School opened in the fall before any of us thought I had learned enough. There wasn’t much I could do, I had to go to school. The first week, we were introduced to the concept of a book report and all hauled down to the school library to select a historic novel to read. Hopelessly, I studied the books, carefully selected for the library display, and finally grabbed one. It had a picture of children bundled up, pulling their sleds in the snow. The title and author were in fancy letters that I didn’t recognize. What did it matter? I was headed for humiliation and disaster big time. Possibly demotion back to third grade.

That night after the supper dishes were done, and I was supposed to be working on my homework, I went up and sat on my bed. I pulled out the book. Opening it to the first page of the story, I stared at the letters.

They formed themselves into words. Words I could read. And the words formed themselves into sentences. Sentences that actually made sense. Intrigued, I started reading. First the paragraph, then the page, then the chapter.

The book was Snow Treasure, by Marie McSwigan. It was a story set in Norway in WWII, where the children of a village moved a fortune in gold, right under the Nazis’ nose, to a disguised fishing boat waiting in a fjord.

I could read! I was totally captivated by the book, especially the character Jan Lesek, who was a young Pole who had been conscripted into the German army.

It was the beginning of a true love affair, especially with mysteries and crime novels, that continues today. The themes of misused power and characters who face scorn and misunderstanding with dignity remain with me. Those themes are important in the novels I write today.

How does your reading history figure in with what you enjoy writing or reading?


E. B. Davis said...

Welcome to WWK, KM. I'm sorry to hear of your problems learning to read. The fact that you not only still love to read, but write books says a lot about your character. Thanks so much for taking on blogging for us. My son lived and went to school near to where you live and set your stories. It's an interesting area with a rich history, but the area's financial stability is iffy. I want to see how you portray it. Your books are on my TBR list.

Jim Jackson said...

It is amazing what we can get away with as kids. In fifth grade my eyesight went from 20/20 to less than 20/200. In an approach similar to yours, I memorized the eye chart from the kids who read it before me. I happened to sit near the front of the class and I could make out the blackboard.

It wasn’t until baseball the next summer that my father realized I was not getting any kind of jump on the ball while I played center field. On the way home he asked me when I could read a particular road sign. When we drove past it and I still couldn’t read it, I was busted and have been a “four-eyes” ever since.

~ Jim

Shari Randall said...

KM, I shudder to think what would have happened if you hadn't picked up Snow Treasure! I am so glad that the universe conspired to turn you into a reader and writer.
This reminds me of my sister-in-law who learned to play the piano the same way you got through reading lessons - by memorization. Wish my memory were half that good.

Warren Bull said...

It was not until the forth grade that the school nurse discovered that I needed glasses. I was called to the office after scoring badly on an eye test and I asked why I had to re-take the test every year. Having a last name that starts with B, I sat close enough to the board to guess most of the letters. I was amazed after I got glasses that the letters on the blackboard were not fuzzy and indistinct.

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks, E.B. Actually, the area is fairly stable financially, it's just not prosperous. One of my daughters had 4 job offers starting the day she turned 14, and nobody hires a 14-year-old if they can get a reasonable older person. However, they were all minimum-wage exempt jobs. She thought she was rich when she turned 16 and got a job as a cashier in a chain grocery store. Not too many middle class people around here.

KM Rockwood said...

Kids, especially do manage under amazing circumstances. I can remember when my sister got her glasses--she was amazed that the leaves on the trees were individual things, not a huge mass that fell apart in spring.

I've worked with adults who couldn't read, and theyoften struggle through life with no one realizing it.

carla said...

I loved this story. So glad you found your way to writing, albeit an unusual route!

Gloria Alden said...

What an impressive story, KM. I'm glad you finally got help. I'm also glad you agreed to join WWK.
And I'm even happier that you started writing the Jesse Damon books which I find excellent and totally believable.

I read Snow Treasure to my 3rd graders one year and they loved it. I'd never read it before and found it as interesting as my students did.

I was twelve when I got my first pair of glasses. Like your sister, I was amazed that I could see individual leaves and everything was so bright and colorful.

Sarah Henning said...

So glad you've joined us, KM!

Kara Cerise said...

Thank you for sharing your story, KM. I can only imagine how you felt the first time individual letters began to form words, then sentences.

I'm mildly dyslexic but wasn't diagnosed until I was an adult. This meant I was slower than other kids and had to work twice as hard to get through school. Luckily, I loved stories so I didn't mind spending a lot of time re-reading. However, math was torture (still is) since I read the numbers backwards.

Paula Gail Benson said...

Welcome, KM! So good to have you among us. Early reading experiences always stay with you. I'm so glad you've been able to find joy in reading and bring joy to others through your writing.

Vonnie said...

Don't know about your reading, KC, but you sure as heck can write!

As a teacher's daughter I was EXPECTED to be able to read and write through a sort of osmosis. I kept my angst to myself and managed to scramble into the highest reading groups. Can't remember anyone reading to me though until your equivalent of fourth grade when a young male teacher read us stirring tales of derring-do.

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks for the welcome! And a special thank you to Gloria, who was the one who introduced me to so many supportive people. I appreciate reading everyone else's blogs, and I'm pleased to be able to share my own.

KM Rockwood said...

Vonnie, thanks for stopping by!

HL Carpenter said...

KM, what a wonderful story! Thank you for sharing.

We're glad you got hooked on the magic of reading, because we really enjoyed the Jesse Damon books!