I was born in 1963. Back in those days, kindergarten was about dancing to a record and thick crayons. Reading started in first grade because the belief was that if you taught a child to read before then, egads, scarred for life!
I was reading by age 3, so draw your own conclusions.
It began with the reading rituals of my parents. My father enjoyed Popular Mechanics, and here comes a toddler with a pencil in one chubby fist. My Dad pointed out, as I sat in his lap, that I could scribble in the white margins. He told me that the black things were words and they were sacred.
Then there was my mother doing the stay-at-home-mom thing for the first time when she was past 40 and already had high blood pressure. Once the dinner dishes were done she wanted nothing more than to sit on the couch and read the New York Daily News. Here comes that escaping toddler again. With a resigned sigh, my mother put me on her lap and would point out words in the paper like coat and sale. She skipped words of multiple syllables and things that denoted mayhem.
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I would sit mutely.
Then the day came in 1967 when she turned the page and I pointed and said, no, I would read. I read the word murder or rape — she couldn't remember which — and she said she almost fainted.
After my mother recovered herself, she started reading the paper to me every day. And vice versa. I suspect I was New York's youngest Jimmy Breslin devotee.
There were regular children's books but, to be honest, by the time I was in third grade, I had an adult library card. I was even allowed to read at the dinner table.
Of course, I raised my daughter to be a reader, too. It's one of the things that I'm very proud of, despite the fact that now addictions overarch her life.
I mention the addictions because that is what has placed my 4- and 5-year-old grandsons in the custody of the paternal side of their family. They are good, hard-working people, but there is not a reader among them, unless you count celebrity magazines. I can see them, but I live hundreds of miles from them and moving is not an option. I have asked them to make an effort to instill the love of the written word — to catch them at an age before we lose the chance forever — but I am not being heard. They just don't get it.
This is the most crushing blow: I can send my grandsons all the books I think are appropriate to their age and life situation, but there is no adult in the world who will read to them.
Once, in a phone conversation with their keepers, I was sneeringly referred to as "college-educated." I then told them the truth. I just made it out of high school. Everything else is self-taught or taught to me by my parents, whose answer to everything was, "Isn't there a book you can read on that?"
I even learned about sex that way. Though I think my mother didn't call it sex education. She said, when she handed me the books, "Jeannee, these are books about life."
Aren't they all?
And what life can my grandchildren have without them?