My parents were not college graduates. My mother grew up in Germany as a WWII refugee, while my father was the son of a Pennsylvania bootlegger and jack of all trades. He graduated from high school and went immediately to the military. She went to school in a reconstructed Germany. Thats where they met and he brought her back to the states as his wife. They were not academics but had a deep understanding of the power of education and the desire to instill that in their children.
I began reading at an early age, 3 if I’m telling the story but actually probably 4 and a half. There wasn’t a super high tech well researched plan to get me reading. It was simple actually. Surround me with lots of books, read to me and encourage me to start on these adventures myself. They also led by example. While my father was never much of a reader, it was not uncommon to see my mother curled up with book. I remember books laying around that she would pick up whenever she got the rare extra minute.
It was my father though who not only created one of my fondest childhood memories but also set the hook for reading. I must have been about 5 or 6 and like probably most little boys waited excitedly for my Dad to arrive home from work. Often when he came through the door he brought a surprise with him. He would bring me one of those paperback Dennis the Menace books or occasionally a Peanuts book. In a lot peoples eyes those books would be considered junk, but in my eyes they were pure gold. They set the root for reading.
You see my parents didn’t hold a lot of concern into what you were reading, as long as you were reading. (Now I should put a disclaimer her, I wasn’t allowed to read chapter 7 of Jaws until I was 18 but thats another story.) They just tried to make books intricately part of our lives. So I would take those books and excitedly scamper off to my room to read and chortle for hours. I didn’t get all the jokes but the ones I did were hilarious. Written on those pages were the passageways to another world and nobody was a bigger hero in my eyes then my father for bringing me the keys to unlock them.
As I got older I discovered comic books. Keep in mind, this was not a time like today where there was a superhero on every corner. Comics were subversive. Only juvenile delinquents read comic books. They would put bad ideas in an impressionable mind. My parents paid no heed and I read everything from Ghost Rider to SGT Rock, Xmen to the Guardians of the Galaxy. Through those books my vocabulary grew as well as my ability to recognize a good narrative. The themes in those books sent me searching for information elsewhere. I can still remember the day I discovered that the Morlocks from the Xmen were all named for characters from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Made me want to read Shakespeare all the more.
These books set a foundation for reading that’s lasted a life time. From the funny books and comic books I progressed into the Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the 3 Investigators, Young American books, and upward into basically anything I could get my hands on. I even went through a phase of reading teen romances. Along the way I discovered the classics as well. Catcher in Rye and The Last of the Mohicans rank among my favorites of all time. I’ve read non-fiction as well, The Blank Slate and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee changed the way I viewed the world. Its safe to say a book is never far from my reach.
To get me to fall in love with reading my parents attended no educational focus groups. They consulted no data wall in a school. There were no rigorous reading assignments in the house. Reading was not done with purpose. The only purpose for reading was the act of reading itself. We often went to the library and the only expectation was that you were to check out books. Now my memories not the greatest, but I don’t remember my parents ever steering us toward a certain book. Just as long as we were choosing books. (Probably why I don’t like suggestions from well meaning reading friends today.) The goal was never how good you were at reading but rather how much you participated.
My nose wasn’t always buried in a book either. I played all kinds of sports and probably watched way too much TV but books were always an unescapable presence. It’s safe to say that I’ve had a life long love affair with them. Disclaimer here, I’m not one of those people who discount electronic reading devices. They are one more opportunity to steal away into a narrative. Anything that makes people explore the written word is all right by me.
My wife is a literacy coach, and knows far more about teaching reading then I ever will, so I’m slow to offer advice about creating life line readers. However, if my experiences tell me anything, its that if you want better readers have them read more. Surround them with books and make time for them to discover the beauty. Read to them and listen to them read to you. Discuss what they read. Its why the Dolly Parton initiative is so important. It gets books in the hands of children who might not have access. There should be a monument to Dolly for starting this program.
In my opinion, testing kids on reading to see what level they are at doesn’t make better readers. Deciding some books are good and others are not, doesn’t make better readers. Arguing over phonetics vs whole word does not make better readers. Reading makes better readers. Now granted, tests can be a measure of what children are struggling with, but they should be used as a diagnostic tool and not a destination. I always chuckle when I hear someone proudly say, “My 4th grader is reading on an 8th Grade level.” I guess as a 48 year old man I should be reading on a 60 year old man level.
I hope that at some point the din involving excessive testing and unrealistic benchmarks calms down and we can get back to teaching kids why reading is important. Its enjoyable. It increases your vocabulary. It exposes you to different ways of thinking. It allows you to travel the world while never leaving your chair. Its not about scoring in the upper percentile. Its not about being college and career ready. Its about growing and unlocking all ones potential. I’m still trying to unlock a few doors but I do want to pause and say, Thank you Mom and Dad. Of all the great things you gave me, the greatest was the love of reading. I can’t imagine how black and white my world would be without that gift. I wonder if they still carry those Dennis the Menace books at the drug store.