There are places I remember
All my life though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain
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.
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.
A LOVE OF BOOKS
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?
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.
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?”
The trick, it was clear, was going to be finding the right material. We settled on Captain Underpants.
“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.
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.”
“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.
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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