Saturday, September 17, 2011

For the Love of Dennis

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


  1. Hello Teresa:
    This is such a poignant story and does indeed raise the very real question about how to ensure that everyone acquires levels of basic literacy from their time in education. Of course,literary skills come more easily for some than others but without them the world is an extremely hostile place with little hope of advancement and so one becomes trapped in a cycle of literacy poverty which, in its way, is probably just as disenfranchising as poverty in a material sense.

    We do, of course, wonder about what may have happened to Dennis...!!!

  2. I was lucky it came easy myself, but worked with many low level readers. It was building their interests sometimes with sharing personal interests and also giving them a pat on the back for whatever effort they put forth.It always warmed my heart to have them run up and ask to share what they were curently reading, seeing the seed I planted growing.

  3. It is hard for me to imagine my life without books. Since I was such a lost child, I received a lot of comfort from losing myself in books and later was able to develop a philosophy of living that made sense to me--thanks to books.

    At the same time, there are so many people who excel in other areas like math who aren't "book people". They may build houses or farm, and sometimes I wonder if they aren't more content with the world than those of us who love to read and write. Maybe Dennis is a contractor with a house on top of a hill today. We change so much after high school.

  4. I remember about 4th grade and being asked by a counselor what type of books I read. I remember lying and telling them this and that, because I didn't want them to know I was reading my dad's and uncle's paperback books. (I thought I might get in trouble because some of the titles were a little racy)
    We should never forget we are a product of the experiences we have had, the movies we have seen, and the books we have read.

  5. What a wonderful story... not because it dredges up a painful memory of being the "different" one in school but because of the empathy you show for someone who struggled.
    Thank you for this insightful post.
    When I was raising my children I volunteered as a reading tutor at my son's school. I can still remember the wonderful feeling when a student would recognize a word and sound it out. I still remember the light of accomplishment on his or her face.
    There are many Dennises out there. In all my years of teaching I helped many students learn to read up to grade level. The accomplishment was theirs but the joy was mine.

  6. Jane and Lance, Yes, "literacy poverty," can leave one in a difficult place. So much depends on being able to read. Children who want to go to school in third world countries always state that there reason for doing so is so they can learn to read. That's pretty telling.

  7. Steve, It must have been very satisfying to work with children and see them grow in their ability to read. It seems bringing in their personal interests would be a very good way to do this.

  8. Towanda, I understand your point, and hope that Dennis found his way in something that spoke to him, farming and building being both very fine pursuits. For me, it's not so much about the Love of reading, although that's certainly a part of this, but it's more about the ability to read. I think those of us for whom this came easy take it for granted, but for those who struggled, well, it affects all aspects of our lives. I hope Dennis built himself a fine house, but I also want to think that, at the end of the day, he could, if he wanted to, pick up a book and read it without struggling. I agree with your point about contentment, that it can come just as easily when one is involved in life itself, without the desire for books.

  9. Michael, I had a similar experience, reading age inappropriate material. :) When you love to read, the material starts getting more advanced, too.

  10. farmlady, What a wonderful endeavor and how rewarding it must have been. You opened up the world to those students, as surely as geography and history added to it.

  11. Very interesting post. To be honest, I think I was a mix of both you and Dennis. I loved reading and could happily have spent all my school days reading, but in other subjects I used to struggle as I lacked self-confidence, for so much of my early school life I was full of fear. A dreadful feeling.

  12. I had a fifth-grade classmate named David who had a severe stutter. It was hard for all of us to hear him read and speak - out of sympathy. No one ever teased him.

    I still wonder what happened to him, and whether he got the help he needed to overcome his stutter.

    And, like you, I read and read and read.

  13. I remember the day I was able to read the words in my Dick and Jane reader. When it finally made sense to me. Liberating, exciting, wondrous! I wish all of of could experience that exquisite moment. Hugs to Dennis, wherever he is today...

  14. Marilyn, Math and I had trouble later on. Algebra completely lost me. I don't know if I had fear, but I did have trouble asking for help.

    Linda M, Stuttering would be so difficult to deal with, especially at school. I'm reminded of "The King's Speech." It was almost painful to watch when he was trying to deliver speeches. Then, there's Mel Tillis, the country singer, who discovered he could sing with no stutter at all. It had to do with finding a rhythm.

    DJan, Like finding the key to a great treasure. Yes, hugs to Dennis.

  15. It's a wonderful story and a sad one. Maybe you and the teacher were the only ones who saw Dennis' misery. When he came home from school he was probably not able to find a quiet corner to do his homework or to even try to read a book. With fourteen siblings ! They had to help with everything in the house. Maybe he had a job in order to help his family. After what you tell about him he was too proud to tell anyone about his problems. They might have been serious. Poor guy. When I hear about Dennis I'm so grateful that I had such a good childhood where I could read all the books I wanted, and that I had only ONE teasing little brother!
    Thank you for telling us.
    It's so lovely to read about people who love to read. When I was 12 I read Dostojevski! I'm not saying that in order to brag, because I did not understand his works at that time! Just that I could do it and was allowed to do it was enough.
    Grethe ´)
    Hello Buddy!

  16. Dear Grethe, Thank you so much for these thoughts about dear Dennis. Yes, it must have been a busy life and not much time or place for reading. Whenever I was in their home, I felt as though I was visiting a foreign country. How do you even give the needed thought to naming fourteen children let alone caring for them individually? I once asked his sister that very thing! I was young and foolish.

    Reading Dostoyevski at 12! I love it! "Just that I could do it and was allowed to do it was enough." Exactly so, Grethe.

    Thank you for these very thoughtful comments.

  17. Oh, and Buddy returns your greeting. He's lying at my feet snoozing away, dreaming of bugs to eat and bushes to prune.

  18. I taught many a child like Dennis and I did my best to stop the pain. Sometimes, it really does take one to know one.

  19. Beautiful photography.

  20. Cletis, Perhaps so, perhaps so.

    Abe, Perhaps you're alluding back to a previous post? Thank you.

  21. Such a poignant and sensitive post. How intuitive you were/are to all those like Dennis in the world. I remember, quite well, cringing along with the hesitant reader, forced to read aloud when he or she couldn't and wanting to help them with each word. I hope we have gotten better at recognizing different learning skills. Tom isn't one to pick up a novel or biography, but, he pours through technical journals and car magazines.

    I learned to love books on my grandmother's lap. She could neither read nor write, but, would hold the book and spin tales that fostered my love for reading in the most remarkable way.

  22. Penny, I always felt uncomfortable going to the blackboard and doing math problems. I could do them, but I felt so exposed. As far as reading, there were times when I was content with reading the proverbial cereal box.

    Your grandmother's lap sounds like a good place to be. That she couldn't read or write, but would spin tales for you, is in itself remarkable.

    Thanks, Penny.

  23. This year, new graduation rules were drawn up, making high school graduation very difficult for the less academically talented. Wonder what the government will say when more students drop out of school than than ever before.

  24. I am new to your blog and didn't even know this was "a community of writers"--whoohoo! I never considered myself a "writer" until I went to college at 48 years old and was singled out by several professors who called me that. Still makes the hair raise on the back of my neck and my eyes mist over.

    I don't remember when I learned to read. But I do remember my mother setting me on the red metal kitchen stool, reading Shakespeare stanzas to me, and then asking me what I thought whatever she had just read aloud meant. I was around 9-10 years old and this led to discussions and disagreements about human nature and why people do what they do. I got the gist of the words, but I knew more about people than my mother did--LOL!

    My mother put me directly into first grade at five. I was too young to go to public school, so I passed some tests and went to this parochial, religious school for two years. What I do remember was the joy of being able to help other students...even some older than I...with everything but math (I was terrible at math and still am to this day). The school was kind of run like a one-room-schoolhouse. Grades 1-3 in one room and 4-6 in another. I was allowed to help anyone who needed help when I finished my own work and that was such an honor and a delight. I'd race through my own so I could wander the room and be useful.

    I was so bored and disappointed when I went to public school in third grade. Was always in trouble for walking and talking, which had recently been normal. I gradually fell into books for escape, knowledge, and challenge. Never lost my love of school and learning, though. Just learned that rules are arbitrary.

    When I read your memories of Dennis it brought back the little girl who could have left her desk and walked right over to Dennis and put my hand on his arm or back and talked with him and make him feel better about himself. Always wanted to help people smile or laugh...was the one thing I was good at...lifting spirits.

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. I am swimming in memories this morning. :):)

  25. Gigi, I do believe the drop-out rate is often due to students feeling left behind. It will be interesting to see what happens. More rules should not be what education is about.

  26. Rita, what a wonderful that your mom understood who her child was and met it with Shakespeare! Starting life in such a school was also a great gift. It would be a wonderful world if all education could take place in such a compassionate and helping atmosphere.

    I always feel that in order to blog one must either love to write or at least have an avenue for self-expression, such as photography. I still have trouble identifying myself as a writer....but a community of writers feels right, doesn't it? I'm so glad you're here. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  27. I could not read and each day of school was more than any one should be asked to bare. It was not until I took one of my children to be tested for learning disabilities, and had myself tested too, that I learned I was dyslexic. I will never get over the embarrassment of being called on in class to read or spell aloud. The feelings of fear and embarrassment embedded in my psyche are with-in me to this day and have influenced all of my life choices. I am afraid things are no better for "non-readers" ( what an awful term ) now than they were for me or my son. My heart aches for all of the Dennis' out there..... please excuse my errors..I still have a hard time with this stuff...

  28. ME. I'm so glad you've visited today and shared your own story here. It's exactly the kind of thing I feel needs to be addressed. I know there are teachers who are making a gargantuan effort and there are still students who are left behind. That this has stayed with you and influenced all your life choices....

    I visited your page again and I see that you have found diverse interests, with some outstanding reading material listed there. I see many of my own interests represented in your reading list. Very nice to get to know you better.

    Thank you so much for this. Deeply appreciated.