Down Our Way

by Wolf Pascoe on March 18, 2013

There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
— Lennon/McCartney

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Some years ago Nick asked me for a computer.

“It’s no good having computer if you’re not reading,” I said.

“Can I have one when I can read?” he said.

“Sure.”

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At the time of this conversation Nick was six, and the plausibility of his reading was off the horizon.

Nick’s wild school, Fern Hill, has no curriculum. That’s not quite fair. More correctly, its curriculum is emotional–rather than academic–intelligence. There’s a reading class, which is optional, as all classes at Fern Hill are. Nick’s interest has been desultory.

Much may be said of children and learning to read. A thing Nora and I believed was that Nick would learn when he was ready, and that many children, boys in particular, are less than ready at age seven, when reading enters the public school curriculum. Some may be ready at ten, or even twelve. Better to wait than force.

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A LOVE OF BOOKS

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We’ve been reading to Nick every night since he was two months old. Apart from the pleasure, we assumed this would cultivate both a love of books and a desire to read for himself.

The first half of this assumption proved true. Nick loves books. But what of the desire to read for himself? The age of seven came and went without its appearance. Then he was eight. No interest. Then nine. No interest.

Most Fern Hill graduates who arrive at middle school not knowing how to read learn within a few months. But Nick has always been a guy who is hard on himself. Sometimes his vision of perfection stops him from trying.

What if the culture of middle school, instead of spurring him on, was to shut him down?

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When Nick turned ten, Nora and I made a decision. Better for him to be frustrated at home now than under the eyes of peers at middle school later. It was time for him to learn to read.

“Nick,” I said. “It’s time for you to learn to read.”

“Do I still get the computer?” he said.

“When you’ve learned,” I said.

“Okay.”

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FIRST LESSON

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Nick took down a volume of Harry Potter and looked it over.

“I’ll never learn to read this,” he said.

“You can’t start with Harry Potter,” I said. “You need something simpler. How about Mr. Small’s Little Auto?”

“That’s a baby book,” he said.

This is, in a nutshell, is the problematic result of cultivating a love of books: Nick’s listening taste, which runs to works like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, exceeds his reading skill by a county mile.

“What about Bartholomew and the Oobleck?”

“Baby book.”

“Little Bear?”

“Baby book.”

The trick, it was clear, was going to be finding the right material. We settled on Captain Underpants.

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GUILTY PLEASURE

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“What’s this book?” Nick said to me a few weeks ago.

Years ago, browsing a used bookstore, I’d come upon a volume from my grammar school years called Down Our Way, a third-grade reader. Buying it was a guilty pleasure as you couldn’t own a state textbook when I was in third grade. You couldn’t even take one home. I had put it on a bookshelf in Nick’s room, where he found it collecting dust.

Down Our Way is filled with images of a simpler, more trustworthy time, a time that for me had a father in it. As I looked it over with Nick, it also seemed to document a world that hadn’t yet gone mad.

Except it had gone mad. Down Our Way was published just after World War II. Air raid sirens were tested every Friday at noon. We had drop drills in school to protect us from nuclear attack.

“It’s what I read when I was learning to read. I don’t think it’s your cup of tea,” I said.

“I’d like to read it,” he said.

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ANOTHER WORLD

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I never had the childhood depicted in Down Our Way, with summers on grandmother’s farm, green grocers, the friendly milkman in his horse-drawn cart. It produces a strange feeling, reading such a book with your son, four pages a night. Makes an archeological dig of your brain, it does.

“Dada, look at this,” he says, reading. “‘Daddy and the children helped Mother with her work.’”

“That’s right,” I say.

“But why is the mom mother and the dad daddy?”

“I don’t know,” I say.

“And why do the kids always do what their parents say?”

“It was another world,” I say. “Maybe we should read another book.”

“Dad, I really like this.”

“Why?”

“It’s so funny.”

I realize that Nick is studying anthropology. I realize that he comprehends this book and its idealized worldview with an ironic sensibility. I realize that we have solved, for the moment, the problem of finding books easy to read that Nick doesn’t consider beneath him.

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RELATED POST:

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YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:

Down Our Way. You can find anything on Alibris.

Image Credit: All images taken from Down Our Way, a California State Textbook from another century

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EXPRESS YOURSELF!

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Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Pamela March 18, 2013 at 12:42 pm

This made me so nostalgic for those books and the times I read about which were probably as imaginary as the homeschool perfect crafty lives we imagine today. My dad used to teach prisoners how to read with books by Matt Christopher (sports) and Strider by Beverly Cleary. He had the same problem you did. I love that Nick is going at his own pace. He’s going to have such trust in himself and self knowledge. So beautiful!!

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Wolf Pascoe March 18, 2013 at 1:36 pm

He’s going to have such trust in himself and self knowledge.
From your keyboard to God’s screen.

Say, do you think the guys your dad taught would have been into Batman?

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pamela March 19, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Oh I have no idea what they were into. More likely they were into Willie Sutton.

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The Exception March 18, 2013 at 2:39 pm

I love that he wants to read this book and that you are sharing that experience. I have bought different books for my daughter that were part of my childhood – not only because they are great books, but because books connect us. Kids learning to read when they are ready is awesome – and we would probably have more people with a love for reading and books if it were practiced in the schools more often.
The Exception recently posted..Tiny Dancer

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Wolf Pascoe March 18, 2013 at 9:52 pm

Most books from my childhood Nick dismisses out of hand. I never know when or how one is going to sneak in.

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Jan March 18, 2013 at 5:41 pm

When my son was a reluctant reader, we started with Peanuts cartoons (my husband had books of them) and moved on to Captain Underpants. When he gets a little more confident you could try books by Gordon Korman–adventures with very short chapters and pretty easy reading, but topics to appeal to an older kid.

I often wish I had the courage to school my daughter the way you school your son.

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Wolf Pascoe March 18, 2013 at 9:55 pm

“When he gets a little more confident you could try books by Gordon Korman”
Thanks, Jan. I like the Peanuts idea as well. I have Calvin and Hobbs somewhere, too.

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Jan March 19, 2013 at 2:21 pm

He’s 18 now and wrote about Calvin and Hobbes for his college essays last year. A lasting gift.

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Wolf Pascoe March 19, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I wonder how Captain Underpants would go over in college . . .

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Kyle Bradford March 23, 2013 at 7:43 am

“I realize that Nick is studying anthropology. I realize that he comprehends this book and its idealized worldview with an ironic sensibility.”

Something we all do every so often.
Kyle Bradford recently posted..Steubenville and the hard road of parenting

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Wolf Pascoe March 23, 2013 at 8:43 am

But it seems to start so early. First, they doubt Santa. Then this.

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Barbara March 23, 2013 at 10:11 am

It never hit me that getting lost in those old books from our childhoods was a study in anthropology, but you’re right! My daughter had such a tough time admitting she couldn’t read that I was worried she never would really learn. In kindergarten she would pick one up and recite it, word for word. I finally had to break it to her that we all knew she wasn’t really reading. Tough, but necessary! My older son took off reading on his own in third grade when he got hooked on Goosebumps books.
Barbara recently posted..Five Things on Friday…oops…I mean, Saturday.

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Wolf Pascoe March 23, 2013 at 3:28 pm

When she was a kid, Nora memorized the books her parents read to her. She thought that’s what reading was.

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Privilege of Parenting March 23, 2013 at 9:53 pm

Perhaps in another fifty years it will be “the savage” milkman bringing the “life threatening” milk.

This made me remember how my mom just loved “The Little Engine That Could,” and found it so encouraging, while I always found it oppressive in some sort of all-trains-lead-to-Auschwitz/something’s terribly wrong with Thomas way.

And I also thought about your post of nearly a year ago, http://justaddfather.com/2012/04/16/pipers-at-the-gates-of-dawn/, and wondered if that may be a good next book in your magical meanderings.

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Wolf Pascoe March 24, 2013 at 9:50 am

I re-read that piece of a year ago and it filled me with such sweet sadness. Wind in the Willows indeed.

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