For as long as I've been on this planet I've loved words. You probably have, too, that's why you're here, in this community of writers, expressing yourself in your own unique way. We all love words, especially the written word. I followed along over my mother's shoulder as she read to us, learning to read almost by osmosis. I could read well before I ever went to school. It just seemed to come very easy for me.
In the first grade, I recall a boy named Dennis who, when called upon to read aloud, struggled so hard over every syllable that I think I held my breath, praying him through, 'til he was mercifully released and the next child was called on. I even wondered, when it came to my turn, if I should pretend to struggle, so he and others who fought their way through a sentence would feel better. It made me sad. It seemed unfair.
In second grade, again Dennis sat across from me and we silently struggled together, side by side. Whether it was reading, or math, whatever the subject, he had trouble. He seemed to move through life almost painfully alone. A strange thing, considering, but understandable now from the distance of over fifty years. He came from a family of fourteen kids. Perhaps that was the first time I recognized one can feel very isolated and alone even in a crowd, even in the midst of family and friends.
It was early in the year when Mrs. Tonsager handed out new reading books and I got so caught up in reading that I was completely unaware we had moved on to handwriting. When I finally looked around and saw everyone else working on their cursive, I quietly lifted the top of my desk, slid the book inside, pulled out the cursive handbook and went to work practicing my loops. I've wondered why Mrs. Tonsager never said a word to me. She surely saw me there, two desks from her desk, reading instead of writing, completely absorbed in the book. Perhaps she knew the value and allowed for it.
In the spring, we all took part in something called Iowa Basic Skills Tests. Mrs. Tonsager would call each child up to her desk to discuss the results of their tests. When it was my turn, I stood next to her desk as she told me I was reading at an eighth grade level. I wasn't sure what that meant, but she seemed very pleased and I supposed I should be, too. I quietly returned to my seat. But, in that moment, the world opened before me and all the potential that books brought with them came flooding in. I never looked back. I read nonstop year after year.
One day, sometime during that year, I noticed Dennis was sitting with his face in his hands and quietly crying. I didn't know what to say. A boy was crying and I was completely lacking any skills that would allow me to comfort him. I did ask why, but he wouldn't answer me. I couldn't tell you what happened and in what order, but the teacher came back to Dennis' desk, knelt down beside him and asked what was wrong. I heard him tell her, through his tears, that he'd forgotten to wear a shirt. He was wearing only a white t-shirt at the time, something I'd given no notice to, but to him it might have been akin to my recurring dream of hiding behind the door to our classroom wearing only my slip. No child is immune to feelings of vulnerability, so I don't know why I'm relating that story and tying it into reading, but they seem to go together in my childhood, his struggle with reading and with life.
A few years later, I became friends with two of his slightly older sisters, Trisha and Kathy. We spent many summer days riding horses, laughing ourselves silly, and forming the Beatles Bifocal Club, something I've alluded to earlier. I never made friends with Dennis. He seemed to disappear, as though he was in some sort of self-imposed exile. I have no idea what happened to him. I lost track of their family years ago.
It seems to me, looking back across the distance from childhood to here, that "no child left behind" should apply to their emotional well-being rather than their academic progress. I believe the two are inextricably linked. Surely, we can do better, for a boy named Dennis and all the others since. Somehow, it all seems tied together. It's not a magical answer, but being able to read and being encouraged to read opens up a world of infinite possibilities, raising one's perception of their place in the world along the way.
Paintings by Winslow Homer