One day this past spring, David and I were on a walk, talking about the first things we remembered. I told him about playing sorting games (using hair barrettes) on my floor with my dad when he came home from work. And I told him about The Strawberry Muffin incident… when my mom told me she would make me strawberry muffins the next morning but when I woke up there were no strawberry muffins to be found. There was no mom to be found. There was a grandmother telling me that my mother was in the hospital and I had a new baby brother. I was devastated, crying “WHY ARE THERE NO STRAWBERRY MUFFINS???” Or at least this is how I remember it.
I’ve thought a long time about my early life and these two things are my very definitive first memories. But couple of days, David asked what my next earliest memory was. At first, I had no idea. Yet after awhile, the picture became clearer. Playing flash card games with my mom, a fire extinguisher box on the ground between us so I couldn’t see her cards. Singing “ah ah ah ah apple, eh eh eh eh eh egg…” Learning to read. I remember wanting to learn to read so badly. My mom might recall it differently, but I don’t think I ever complained when it was time for one of our sessions.
Those afternoons of lying on the floor working on phonemic blends formed a key that unlocked world after world for me. Shadow Spinner, my favorite book in 5th grade. Germany in the 1940s. The Count of Monte Christo. Hogwarts. I tore through books for most of my formative years. We have a home video of me excitedly explaining that what someone really needs to invent is a machine that will hold your book and turn the pages so you can read while brushing your teeth. (I suppose that’s what happens when you’re the child of a dentist and a bibliovore.) But as I got older, reading was unlocking more worlds, not fewer. My college scholarship interview where they asked what my favorite book was (Les Miserables). Textbooks. Spanish and Greek. Books full of ideas that were changing the way I saw the world.
Fast forward to the summer after after my junior year of college. I was working at an educational nonprofit in a basement in north Manhattan, teaching kids during the day and exploring the city at night. I had a student in my class who had completed first grade but was still really struggling with basic sounds and blending. I remembering calling my mom on my 22 block walk back to my dingy apartment in Washington Heights and saying, “Ok, I have 20 minutes. How do you teach a kid to read?” That particular child and I worked together for the rest of the summer, learning phonics, forming blends, stretching them out longer and longer until he was reading actual words. I remember the first time I showed him a three letter word and, instead of drawing out each sound, he turned excitedly to me and said, “RAT! It says rat! And I know that because I read it. With my brain. I’m a GENUIS.” A few weeks later on that same 22 block walk, I called my mom and told her that I thought that just maybe I would try applying for this Teach for America thing. Just to see what happened.
It’s been three years since those walks in North Manhattan and twenty years since my mom and I laid on the floor in our garage-turned-playroom, one on each side of the box, playing flash card games and singing songs about short vowels. But that key she gave me so long ago is still unlocking door after door after door. It’s unlocking doors of opportunity, as I grow professionally through reading. It’s unlocking doors deep inside my heart every time I tear up or laugh out loud because a book is just that good. And perhaps most importantly of all, it’s unlocking doors that aren’t even mine, the doors that belong to the dozens of kids in my classroom who are ready to run right through them.
Anyone will tell you that reading is good for us. So is brushing our teeth, eating our vegetables, and looking both ways before we cross the street. But unlike those other things, reading isn’t just good for us. It’s magic. Looking both ways before crossing the street might keep you from getting run over, but that’s about it. Reading on the other hand, makes us more empathic. It allows us to visit a million different places from our couches. Reading makes us laugh and cry and furrow our brows. Through reading, we can learn how to do almost anything.
Every time I think about how many hours my mom spent on the other side of the fire extinguisher box, I’m reminded of the saying, “Everyone wants a revolution, but no one wants to do the dishes.” My mom did the dishes (both literally and metaphorically) over and over and over. It was revolutionary. Do you want a revolution? A more peaceful, innovative society? A better world? Help us raise a generation that loves to read. It’s not a glamorous solution, it doesn’t involve super fancy technology. But it works. And hey, if we can do it, my tooth brush page turning machine might even catch on.
Thank you so much to everyone who helped share my link on Facebook this week! My project is funded (the number hasn’t updated yet, but it’s actually funded beyond my original goal) and I can’t wait to meet my students, get to know their interests, and pick out lots and lots of books for them to enjoy.