all of the selves we Have ever been
(In memory of Allison St. Claire who loved books, her library card, and bringing our words into print.)
Fueled by SPAM and saltine crackers, we made our way from California to Ohio in the back of a Rambler station wagon. Our father had orders to deploy to Pakistan. Amidst the upheaval, I deployed to first grade. While my father had many years of military experience and was ready to go, I did not have the benefit of basic training—no preschool, no kindergarten. A shy and quiet child, I was not just reluctant, I was terrified, but there was no choice. And so, like my father, I donned the uniform. He marched off to Pakistan, and I marched off to Catholic grade school.
Dressed in her traditional 1960s nun’s habit, the teacher was every bit as intimidating as a drill sergeant. Following orders, I sat up straight, eyes forward. We turned our attention to a large flip chart that seemed to be the height of a first-grader. Sister Eulalia turned back the cover page, and with her long pointer, she tapped the word at the bottom of the page: “Look,” she read aloud. We all repeated, “Look.” And so it began. I was officially a reader. Never again have I felt so powerful and proud.
I had no idea that Dick and Jane and the Catholic school version John and Jean would soon be on their way out along with Spot and Puff. I had no reason to be aware of the debate going on in academia about methods for teaching reading: site reading versus phonics. I was too young and my world too small to be aware of the biases and stereotypes depicted on the pages filled with white faces and white picket fences. I, along with 85 million other American children, learned to read with Dick and Jane and John and Jean, Sally and Judy, Spot and Puff. Unaware of the catalog of faults, I enjoyed my school books with the watercolor art, sweet stories, and urgent action words: Look! See! Run! Come!
Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I cannot live in a world without books.” And since that first day when I was ordered to look, I cannot stop looking at books. A lifelong student of human behavior, I have maintained a preschooler’s incessant need to know why. Why do people do what they do? Why do I do what I do? Inside a book I can mingle with unsavory characters and walk away with my reputation unscathed. I have the privacy to get to know myself. Without an audience and without shame, I can get down into the dark corners of my own dusty layers. I can sort out what I know, what I think, and what I might do next. Books allow me to see myself, but they don’t demand that I mount a defense.
Though books now come in many forms, I still love print--the firm cover that cracks when opened for the first time. I love the smooth pages and the dog-eared ones that remind me to look again. I am awed by the power of words and the importance of order in giving meaning to language. The words liberty and death can be “Death to liberty,” or “Give me liberty or give me death.” I melt into the pictures painted by the brushes of gifted writers. I swear I have tramped through the marsh Where the Crawdads Sing. I have traveled through time with Kristin Hannah and felt the grit in my eyes blown there by the ferocious winds of the dust bowl in The Four Winds. I have wept for the curse that was slavery as I rode The Underground Railroad with Colson Whitehead. I have learned history and geography in meaningful and memorable ways not possible in the classroom.
I also love the companionship that books provide. Every character becomes someone I know, a wise old friend. There are authors I trust. They give me confidence and something to look forward to. I turn to them again and again. William Zinsser wrote that writing is a public trust and that truth is a gift. He speaks of clear thinkers with a passion for their subjects and notes that how we write and how we talk is how we define ourselves. Yes! “We can write to affirm and to celebrate or we can write to debunk and destroy…nobody can make us write what we don’t want to write. We get to keep intention.” Character is revealed through writing. In this crowded world, it can be hard to find your people. I find mine in books. And I find solutions. I am better prepared for the future having walked the unfamiliar path upon a page with someone who has been there, with someone who knows. And when I am weary, and fresh out of dreams, I find something new that restores my spirit. Without books, my mind is homeless.
It is Read Across America Day! Thank you, Sister Eulalia, for teaching me to read. And thank you Dick and Jane for inviting me to Look!