Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Raising Readers

When “How to Eat Fried Worms” opened at the movies a few months ago, the trailer inspired yuck-filled disgust from my kids, but evoked a giggle from me. See, when I was in grade school, I read the gross aforementioned book. I liked it so much that I checked it out from the library three times in a row. (Since no one was waiting for it, Mrs. Riley said I could). Then I lost it.

I recall every painful day of that experience because books were treasured in my home. Of course I scoured the school, searched every room in the house, all to no avail. There was no way I could tell my parents. They’d kill me. (I thought.) Mrs. Riley, being my buddy, fully understood. But, she explained, the book had to be replaced.

(This is where the post-traumatic-stress-disorder kicks in and I forget how much it cost.)

Coming from a family that didn’t believe in allowance (you did what you were supposed to because…you were supposed to), any amount was too much. Again, the intuitive Mrs. Riley tapped into my distress and offered me a deal. Pay for the entire book, plus the overdue fee, and no one would ever know. Considering that my dad was president of the PTA and I thought he knew EVERYTHING that happened at the school, the idea of a secret like this was overwhelming. But I agreed to the impossible.

No penny went unpinched. No couch coin stayed covered. Every nickel treat meant for the Five & Dime went to Mrs. Riley instead. And, by the end of the school year, I’d paid off the entire debt. Whew.

Was I that afraid of my parents’ wrath? Sure. I had ultimate respect for them. But, more importantly, it was the high regard we held for books, reading and education that made me want to right this situation.

I don’t remember ever being read to as a child. (That’ll make mom and dad cringe.) What I recall is the total immersion in all things learning that our household embodied. Using common sense, building book knowledge and speaking “The King’s English” were my father’s only boundaries. Beyond that, the world was ours to discover.

Every room had a bookcase – some wall length and ceiling high. My father read the paper every day, all day, front to back, comics, too. My mother attended college my entire life (from earning an LPN, to her RN, an associates, bachelors and, eventually, masters degree) and her medical books were strewn from room to room.

While me and my brothers’ bedrooms were overrun with children’s books of all kinds, World Book Encyclopedias, a set of children’s dictionaries, a series of animal journals and Ebony magazine’s African American reference library supplied my upbringing with authoritative information.

I remember teaching my dolls – lining them up along my closet wall with pencils and paper – from the time I was barely bigger than they were. (Much to his chagrin, my brother closest in age, now a major in the Marines, often got tossed into this “classroom” mix.) And what were my instructional materials? Textbooks my parents purchased from the school whenever the district revamped its curriculum.

A few years ago, while back home for a visit, I gathered all those old encyclopedias, reference books, and cherished childhood stories still stored in the basement. I carted boxes and boxes of dusty, much-thumbed and well-preserved books to my own hallways, bookshelves and coffee tables. Like the house I grew up in, my own family’s home boasts something to read in every room.

The lesson learned from losing “How to Eat Fried Worms” is that literacy is crucial. I spent one school year paying off a book and its fines. The costs of not being able to read, having access to decent schools or being open to the mind-expanding experiences education offers are socially irreplaceable.