Sunday, September 28, 2008

What Reading Means to Me...

To write such a thing presupposes that I know what reading means. I’m at a point in my life where I’ve lost the meaning, which is why I’ve decided to write this thing in the first place. At best it will be a discovery. Maybe we can explore together? We’ve found a white pillared house at the end of the street. Still another, stone-front, a light burns from a window at the back. The houses are old and the furniture is dusty. Is that memory’s decay? Rooms are dark and the dark gets thicker where the walls come together. Here we may find our meaning. Do you have your flashlight handy?

First memory of writing involves my father sitting cross-legged in the large, lavender straightback living room chair. The lamp on the round table next to him casts light across the lenses of his black rimmed glasses and across the open page on which he writes with a yellow pencil. The book he is busily filling with words is dark blue with darker whorls. The word RECORD is stamped across the front in gold. My father keeps a stack of these journals in his closet, separated into two piles. Some covers are red, some are green, some are brown. There are quite a few.

I suppose before I could read or write I watched my father perform these rituals with a sense of hopefulness about the adult world. How marvelous that someday I would sit and write in a book! After I’d learned to read, I would lift one from the top shelf of my parent’s closet and open to a page that held a date and a description of what I’d done that day. He kept a journal for us.

The first entry was written after they, my adoptive parents, brought me home from the hospital. I’ve always wondered if being adopted has enhanced my reading experiences. I don’t suppose it has, though knowing nothing about my biological parents or my biological ancestry, I have always felt the benign possibility that I could belong to just about any culture. I wonder if my willingness to become someone else within the pages of a book is enhanced by my feeling like the darling of the world. Perhaps not, but I knew the world was large and interesting and I couldn’t wait to learn more.

Suspension of Disbelief

In childhood, I really didn’t have much disbelief to suspend. My reality was shaped by the adults in my life—my parents, teachers. And like many young Americans, I lived in a world in which I was visited by the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Leprechauns. It was a world where magic was as likely as the mundane, and you were as likely to run into a witch as the mailman. It’s the magic I want to tell you about. We’ll start with the leprechauns.

Every St. Patrick’s Day eve, my sister and I would set out cookies for the leprechauns. We were skeptical. What would they leave us? We were given proper procedure for visiting leprechauns—spread sheets of white paper on the floor. We were told leprechauns had excessively dirty feet. We’d know whether or not they visited based on what kind of trail they left. So, we gathered as much white paper as we could find and spread sheets throughout the house—down the hallways, up the stairs, into our bedrooms.

On St. Patrick’s Day morning, my sister and I were astonished to find little black footprints across the papers, and the cookies were gone. I scooped up all the evidence and took it to school. By third grade I began devising traps to try and catch one. My parents swayed me from the more devious – a few sharpened pencils, a school-boy punji pit. “You don’t want to hurt the leprechauns.” I settled for a box trap. Besides sooty feet, these leprechauns were crafty. All of my attempts were foiled!

At school, my third grade teacher, Mrs. Scalera, led the leprechaun hunt. We were told to bring a shoebox from home and some yarn. During our St. Patrick’s Day party, between bites of clover cookies and green Kool-Aide, we strung yarn from our open shoeboxes to the ground. In our shoeboxes we placed a clover cookie. We were told leprechauns only ate four leaf clovers, to stay lucky, but with any luck, a clover cookie might do the trick. Our teacher told us leprechauns were invisible, so we’d have to watch our strings closely to be sure if one had taken the bait. So, I watched my red yard intently for movement.

Nearly everyone caught a leprechaun. Finally, I did too. The string moved—he was climbing into the shoebox! I closed the lid once I was sure he was inside and called my teacher over. She congratulated me and we lowered our heads to the box to listen. He was in there! I heard the scratching! Privy to how slippery these soot-footed pigmies could be, I wrapped my coat around the shoebox and began the walk home.

My parents congratulated me. Afternoon wore on to evening, and I wondered if he had eaten the cookie. I wondered if I was suffocating him. I knew he couldn’t be happy in the shoebox. By bedtime, I resolved to let him out and opened the box. There was the green clover cookie, untouched. I was beginning to feel a little ridiculous, in truth. Had I been duped by my parents and my teachers? If so, it had worked, and it had been a blast!

Later I learned that my parents pressed the sides of their fists into a black stamp pad to make tiny feet and thumbprints for toes. Mrs. Scalera had scratched one side of the box while we listened. I was convinced I had caught a leprechaun that day. It was a feeling I knew I wanted again, but how could I trick myself?

As a kid, magic was a large part of my life. School was frightening. In kindergarten, David Winfield, the kid who sat next to me, had a thick down on his forearms. Inevitably, one kid ate glue. The black girl from across the room showed me her middle finger when the teacher wasn’t looking. The teacher herself—Mrs. Railsback, a large matronly figure I associate with Mother Goose, could be frightening. I made kids laugh at school by making faces. “Entertaining again, John?” She’d ask, disapproving. I began to dread school. As a fussy kindergartener, my parents relied on magic.

I was entrusted a magic coin. I knew my father knew everything about coins because he had quite a collection—coins in rolls, coins marked in books with prices. I was sure he’d know if one were magic or not. I was to keep the valuable magic coin in my pocket and if school started to grate too much on my sensibilities, I was supposed to reach into my pocket, rub the coin and think of all the stuff I could do when I got home. I thought of my swing-set, the kind with the rusty frame, corner pole pumping with each pass. My large stuffed Mighty Mouse. My red Huffy bike. I always felt better when I thought of these things and school became easier to stomach. Soon I gave the magic coin back to my parents. School was getting better every year.

Then I had Ms. Meek. She was a thin woman, wore her chin length black hair straight and sharp, her nose was long, and she painted her severe mouth with bright lipstick. She was a fierce, bony woman. I remember coloring a picture of my dog, Amos. He was a black dog, so I colored him black. “Is your dog really black?” she asked. Something in her voice always accusatory. Maybe her racial sensibilities were offended by a black dog named Amos. “No,” I said dejected. “he’s not.” It was her way of making you feel guilty. Of course he was black.

That year, coupled with conjugating –ing verbs (I had a hard time remembering when to drop the e, or double the consonant), I needed the coin. I looked through my parents things. I knew it was somewhere on their dresser—where my father kept valuables—his college ring, my grandfather’s police badge. I found the coin at the bottom of his wooden valet. I lifted the coin, comforted by its weight and texture, and read, stamped across the front – COUNTRY KITCHEN.

In kindergarten I assumed these were runes of great power. This was truly my first lesson in the importance of literacy. As I grew more aware of the world around me, magic was suddenly in short supply. However, like Jack and his magic beans, I pocketed the coin and thought of the magic the coin held in those early school days. From then on, conjugating -ing verbs held fewer terrors.

My first memory of a chapter book was in third grade, when I was finally beginning to feel like a big kid, had mastered my times tables, borrowing, could read fluently, and conjugated -ing verbs in my sleep. The book was called The Witches, by Roald Dahl. Older students who visited Mrs. Scalera would giggle when they saw she was reading us that book. I felt jealous that they knew something I did not! Story time came at the end of the day, and every day, we would gather on the floor around Mrs. Scalera, who sat on a stool. She would read out loud—at least a chapter. My walk home from school was addled in fantasy.

Looking back, she read to us not to meet some academic content standard, or so her school would look good in the newspapers. I don’t even think we took a fourth grade proficiency test back then. She read because The Witches was a great story that lent itself to being read aloud. That and she loved scaring the pants off us. I know this is true.

Mrs. Scalera was short, had straight, shining red hair to her shoulders and horrible teeth. She would open her mouth and tip her head back to show us the bridgework. “I never brushed my teeth when I was your age. These operations hurt worse than flossing. Be sure you floss or the same will happen to you!” One of the students lost a tooth, about the size of an ivory pebble, and brought it to school in his pocket. It was Mrs. Scalera’s idea to soak the tooth in Coca Cola, our, well, my, favorite drink. It took about a week for the tooth to turn totally black. To this day I always brush my teeth after drinking Coke.

The story of The Witches follows the main character, orphaned (a trend in Dahl books), and his Grandmother, who smokes long black cigars. The book talks about real witches and how it’s a little known fact they truly exist and delight in killing children. Children smell like dog’s droppings to witches, Dahl wrote, and they took the “same pleasure in killing children as you do in eating a large bowl of strawberries and cream,” or something to that effect. Mrs. Meek, my second grade teacher, the one who made us conjugate –ing verbs was growing in my memory to fit his description of a witch. Imagine how this would affect an imaginative child, especially coming from the mouth of his teacher! But, the book was also a survival guide for children. It spoke of how to identify witches. This knowledge, she said, could save our lives.

In grocery stores, on the street, everywhere, I longed to spot a witch. Dahl told us witches wore wigs, because they were naturally bald. Real witches could often be caught scratching their scalps, which chaffed from rough wig lining. They wore long gloves to hide their talons, and their shoes were square because they had no toes. I wanted it to be true! The danger made life for a third grader, a third grader who looked forward to visits from the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and the Easter Bunny, very exciting because Santa never stood leering over your bed, the Easter Bunny would never kick holes in your house, and the tooth fairy wouldn’t consider taking just one or two more teeth…

It was the book The Witches that made me into a reader. I checked all of Dahl’s books out of our school library that year, for many of which there was a waiting list. I finally found a way to give myself the feeling of holding true magic in the palm of my hand. Or, a shoebox with a real leprechaun inside. I grew to love the weight of a book. I still grow giddy with the smell of a library book. I loved the way a bookmark stuck out from between the pages. I was hooked and it began with Roald Dahl.

I discovered I loved his other books almost as much as The Witches. I read The BFG, The Twits, James and the Giant Peach, George’s Marvelous Medicine, and Charley and the Chocolate Factory (though that one was my least favorite). I couldn’t wait to get my hands on these books when each page held danger, adventure and humor. In fact, I still read my favorites for their capricious weirdness. Roald Dahl is not considered a very important writer amongst literary critics, many of whom I’m convinced were never children, but he was the writer who made me love fiction. Roald Dahl made me thirst for odd tales and danger. His words were bizarre candy—sweet, though you never knew if they would blow off the top of your head, force steam from your nostrils, or change the color of your hair. Roald Dahl inspired me to imagine, to dream, and for those reasons, I will forever love him.

1 comment:

Mr. President said...

Ah, very interesting Mr. Skarl. I now understand, for the most part, why you like fiction and well... why I do not. Magic had a very short life with me and when I found out about its true nature, I felt distaste for it. When I was a small child I was more of an observer, looking for the truth in life, trying to get a grasp on things. Being an observer I learned things I should not have, a lot sooner than I should have. What killed magic for me was listening into peoples conversations on the bus, or listening to grown-ups talking when they “thought” I would not understand or that I would not be listening. Most people thought that I was shy in my young age, which is true, but I did not enjoy talking to others. I enjoyed listening to peoples conversations and I believe this would be one of the major reasons why I matured so fast. Magic left in such a heart beat in my life, but I saw my parents enjoying it and I enjoyed it as well! Getting free gifts and getting money for something I would have thrown away, while at the same time they were just as happy as I was and they got nothing in return, but enjoyment. I played along with the whole magic idea till I was about 13 years old, so my family could still get enjoyment out of my childhood… and sadly because I thought if I told them that I did not believe, that no more presents would come.

It is very interesting seeing your childhood compared to mine, but perhaps in the future I could go into the detail you did in yours post, so you could do the same as well. My explanation above is more of a generic version, but I will fill in the peaces later on.