I don’t actually remember learning how to read.
It was something I just always knew how to do like breathing or sleeping. I distinctly remember reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales out loud to the neighbor kids when I was 3 years old. For one glorious year, my parents and I lived together in an apartment where I was granted a permanent stay on naps and given my first dog, a Norwegian Elkhound named Kai.
A few months after I turned 4, we left our apartment in Camelot, gave Kai to a cousin and moved across town to a dark place called ‘Divorceland’. The new apartment building didn’t was stuffed with half-families like ours with headstrong mothers raising a child or two on their own. Instead of reading to my father as I had done previously, I set up my stuffed animals around my bed and read to them a line or two before putting down the book and playing in my imaginary version of the story.
A couple of months later, I learned that I would be starting Kindergarten thanks my maternal grandmother demanding I attend a Jewish school coupled with an outrageously high score on their intake test for Pre-K. It was the first time I learned that I had been born Jewish. I had a lot of questions because I’d been baptized Methodist and even got to attend church with my father and his parents on holidays like Christmas and Easter. My grandmother told me that because she was Jewish, my mother was Jewish, I was, therefore, Jewish. That’s how it worked in my 4 -year old brain: forget Christmas, learn Hebrew and stop complaining about the itchy sweater and wool skirt of the school uniform. Like my parents divorce, I was assured that I would get used to it.
On my first day of Kindergarten, I was placed at a round table with a tent card labeled, The Phonics Station. My sweet teacher, Miss Shayne, introduced to the ‘Letter People’ and then indoctrinated us to what would become the bane of my entire academic life: worksheets.
Despite being instructed to start at the beginning of the alphabet, the boy next to me decided to spell out his entire name with the letters. The two other children opposite us immediately followed his incorrect direction. I raised my hand, but I didn’t see the teacher. So I got up and went over to my cubby and pulled out the brand new book my grandmother had given me earlier in the morning: Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She challenged me to read it quickly since a new tv series was starting based on the books.
I took my book back to “Letter People Land” and immediately found myself transported in time to a century earlier in a place called ‘Minnesota’ while the boy next to me settled into an irritating, repetitive etching exercise on his worksheet, “A is for Achoo”, that he punctuated with a physical sneeze at the end of each sentence.
The other two kids decided it was much more fun to smear the paste on the table and use it as a creative canvas to express themselves with the balance of the ‘Letter People’. I needed to escape the hot, stuffy, smelly 1970s classroom, so I reopened my book and found myself with Laura and Mary on the wide, open prairie of 1870’s America.
Suddenly I felt the book being snatched out of my hands by the teacher. I wanted desperately to tattle on the other 3 children for not following her directions, but she peppered me with questions around where I got the book, where was my worksheet and why wasn’t I doing the work she had assigned? Hot, crocodile tears exploded from my eyes as a blood-curdling, angry scream escaped my lips. I grabbed the book from her, then bolted out the classroom door and down the hall as fast as my little legs could carry me.
As I sprinted past the classrooms, I was still crying and starting to work out an escape plan to get home home. Unexpectedly, everything came to an abrupt halt when I got caught in the stairway and couldn’t open the locked door to the next floor. I dejectedly sat on a stair, wiping my tears with the back of my wrist.
I studied the artwork on the cover of the Little House book, remembering how only minutes earlier it had become a virtual time machine, transporting me a century earlier to a completely different America with a real pioneer family that included a Ma and a Pa as well as sisters.
The faint but rapid ‘clackity-clack’ of my teacher’s heels reminded me I was still in school, it was still the 1970s and I was still in trouble. She briskly walked down the hall and pushed open the heavy door to find me feeling sorry for myself on the stairs.
She quietly sat next to me, offering me a kleenex and, as I blew my nose, she asked if I wanted to read the book instead of do the worksheets. I nodded and we slowly walked back the classroom. Halfway down the hall, we paused as she turned to me and asked if I would read a page from the story out loud. Excitedly, I started the story from the beginning for her, reading word-perfect and using different voices for Ma and Pa and their daughters. My teacher clapped her approval and we returned to the classroom.
By the end of my first week at school, I had finished Little House in the Big Woods and started a series of what were called “placement tests”. The week before Halloween, I was ‘skipped’ as a 4-year old from Kindergarten into Mrs. Cooper’s 1st/2nd grade combo classroom. I read the entire Little House series that year, forever linking the plot twists from Laura’s life with my own. I even had my own ‘Nellie Olsen’, but fortunately she moved away in 3rd grade. Knowing the Little House books were adapted from Laura Ingalls’ own journals inspired me to start writing about my own life at a very young age.
Through journaling, I have learned how to shape smart questions and seek the answers to satisfy my intellectual curiosity. And to this very day, I always have at least a trio of books on my bedside table because I truly love to read!