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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

What If I’d Never Learned to Read? by KM Rockwood

Reading is one of my great “small pleasures.”

Nothing beats snuggling down in my bed, reading just one last story from an anthology before I turn
off the light and slip into sleep. Unless it’s stretching out in my hammock on a sunny summer afternoon, book in hand, while my faithful dog lies underneath, remaining ever vigilant to protect us both from marauding squirrels, deer and rabbits, not to mention the less likely attack of an invading delivery driver. Or maybe curled up in front of a fire on a winter’s day, dog at my feet and a glass of wine by my hand.

All this luxury is icing on the cake. Reading is such an integral part of daily life, from following instructions to filling out forms to reading the newspaper. Not to mention another of my great pleasures, writing.

I almost grew up illiterate. I would have missed out on so much, and day-to-day life would have been a constant struggle.

I had a great deal of difficulty learning to read. Just post WWII, I started school at age four. We were in huge classes, being taught using an early version of whole language, the infamous “Dick and Jane” series.

Students were divided into reading groups based on the teacher’s perception about how well we were mastering reading the content. No objective assessments. We sat in a circle, each one of us “reading” the exact same page. When it was my turn to "read," I always knew exactly what to say for any given page.

It unfortunately never occurred to me that those symbols at the bottom of the page had anything to do with the words I was reciting.

By fourth grade, I was in serious trouble with my school work. I was totally baffled. By now, I had figured out that the symbols on the page had something to do with what the page was supposed to say, but I had no idea what or how to decipher them.

The same material was no longer presented in several different forms, as it was in the earlier grades.
Getty Images

We were expected to independently glean information from textbooks and other print sources. I could do no gleaning.

My mother was overwhelmed with babies and toddlers. When she expressed concern to my teacher, she was assured that I had always been in one of the higher reading groups and was quite capable of reading the classwork. Obviously I was avoiding work. Probably for that most grievous sin of childhood, looking for attention. Tears of despair on my part just reinforced how contrary and stubborn and attention-seeking I was, and won me no sympathy at all.

The summer before fifth grade, an aunt, who had no children of her own and was a teacher, took me in hand to teach me phonics. She was a stern taskmaster, never one to offer encouragement or praise. I wasn't quite sure how this was supposed to work or where it was leading, but by now I was grasping at straws. I didn’t see how this might help, but I worked hard at it.

The beginning of fifth grade dawned. Much to my dismay, we were assigned a book report the very first week of school. In an early integration of history and English (it wasn’t social studies and language arts back then) we were escorted to the school library and told to pick out an historic novel. The librarian had created several displays of appropriate books.

By now, the class sizes had shrunk a bit, to no more than forty-five in a class, and the teachers were no longer teaching two classes a day, one from eight to noon, and another from one to five.
As our visit to the library drew to a close, everyone else grasped a book. This was just post WWII, so many of the book covers displayed tanks firing at unspecified targets or fighter planes zig-zagging through hostile air space. Others showed families traipsing through the prairie along side covered wagons, or ancient kings on their thrones.

I needed a book. Fast. I grabbed one of the few remaining ones. It showed children sledding down a hill. What was historic about that? Who cared? I didn’t notice the sinister adult figures in the background.

It was Snow Treasure by Marie McSwigan.

That evening, after we finished the evening chores and I knocked out my arithmetic homework (I could do that! Unless it was word problems. Then I didn’t even try.)

Taking my book up to the room I shared with my older sister, who was perfect in every way and had been reading since before she started school. I crawled into bed and opened the book.

And read the first page.

Amazed doesn’t begin to describe how I felt. The letters made sounds, the sounds made words, the words made sentences, the sentences made paragraphs, the paragraphs made a story.

Into the Norwegian forest I traveled, alongside children outwitting the Nazis who had captured their village. In my mind, I helped load gold onto sleds, lay on top of it, and sledded down to the fiord where a camouflaged ship waited to whisk it away to the Americas.

I could read! And I had discovered the magic of books.

Books are still magical to me, but I will never find another story that thrills me as much as Snow Treasure.


Margaret S. Hamilton said...

what a wonderful story!

Annette said...

What a lovely and inspirational story, Kathleen!

carla said...

We NEVER forget our first time!!!

Debra H. Goldstein said...

The beautiful meaning of words. Your story reminded me of my maiden aunt - a school teacher - who every week brought me things to challenge my reading level: reader's digest, MAD Magazine, etc. I am so glad you learned to read because what you do with those words in your writing is magical.

Marilyn Levinson said...


I'm glad you learned to read!! So sad to think that there are people who have difficulty learning to read and never get the help they need to overcome the hurdle.

Kaye George said...

That's still a huge class, 45! My little brothers classes were that size, but he was a Baby Boomer. Mine were about half that (pre-Boomer, whatever that is). We didn't divide into groups--we were all in the same group--Reading. Thanks for this story of triumph over the odds stacked against you. Glad it turned out the way it did!

Vicki Batman, sassy writer said...

Oh my bless your child heart. A wonderful story.

KM Rockwood said...

Thanks, everybody.

I am so glad I learned to read.

I can't really blame anybody for my difficulties. Not my mother, with her hands full of babies and toddlers and their needs (looking back, I'm pretty sure she suffered from post-partum depression. Repeatedly.) Not my father, who was a distant presence in the family, but worked long, hard hours to support us. Certainly not the overworked teachers, who had to teach two classes a day of at least 50 students in each, in a school that was originally housed in a converted airplane hangar (early open classrooms?)

Thank goodness for my stern but loving aunt.