Saturday, November 25, 2023

From A to B

Do you remember how you learned how to read? Actual details, like how old you were, where you were, what you read and who you were with? I can't. By all accounts, I should have never ended up calling "writing" my profession because reading and me had a difficult start. We weren't pals.

My kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Hampton or Mrs. Washington, my memory fails, was a strict graying woman outta the '50s who wore stern-looking muted dresses to our classroom and had seating charts. This would have been around 1973. If my memory serves, I wasn't one of her favorites. I do recall a sweet little girl who sat by me, named Jackie, who was a pixie and wore the most enviable shiny white knee-high boots with heels. I was more interested in those boots than the alphabet. She wore them in our class photo.

One afternoon, the teacher pulled me into the hallway (this wouldn't be the last time) and sat me down with flashcards of the alphabet. Maybe terrified, I did my best to give her the answers she wanted though my responses had to have missed the mark a few times. I knew the basics, A, B, C, those early letters were a breeze, but the farther down in the alphabet, my familiarity dropped off like a sugar cube in black coffee. Plop. The U, W, Y, all looked the same to me. Can't you see a resemblance?

Not too long after our hallway visit, my mom started quizzing me in the car about billboards. What can you read there, honey? while pointing out the window. And I'd do my best to answer. Again, I have no idea what I said or if my interpretation of the Sinclair gasoline or the tires at Sears ads were right. If my mom had a heart-to-heart with me about my shortcomings, I can't recall that either. I just wasn't really interested in reading or writing. I was interested in my friend Jackie, her boots and playing at recess.

Feet on hopscotch box
Mrs. Hampton/Washington kept me back from recess once. It was an ordinary day and didn't have anything to do with reading lessons or the alphabet. We were assigned an in-class exercise, and instead of following directions, I recruited another friend, Monica, to play a game. It could have been Candyland or Operation. We had just gotten out the game, and pulled our seats together, when the teacher stormed over and leered down at me, calling us out for failing to follow instructions. I got a paddling in the hall. I hope Monica did not but I was so humiliated, that part of the story is lost. It was extremely painful, and I still have a bad word or two for my kindergarten teacher floating in my head today about her choice of discipline. 

My efforts at reading probably, most likely, almost certainly didn't improve after that point. I caught up somewhere along the way. Though to this day, I couldn't tell you the title of the first book I ever read. It would have been along the lines of Flat Stanley or Judy Blume or somesuch. Reading never gave me the joy my teacher promised. It wasn't Mrs. Hampton/Washington's fault. I just got behind, and it took me decades to catch up. I'm still catching up. 

The fact that this didn't hold me back from learning how to write is a miracle. How is it possible that a half-hearted kindergartener with little interest in letters and books became a writer later? Other teachers, a poem or two, some speeches I wrote, helped. At one point, the letters started to click together easily. It all comes so easily now. It is a gift not taken for granted. 

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