The ability to read has probably brought me more hours of delight than any other single thing in my life. I remember opening my first “reading book” on my little desk in first grade and galloping through every word like a runaway horse. The system of combining letters into words and then ideas made complete sense to me and reading came as natural as breathing. I have no idea how it happened; I just “got it”.
The series I learned to read from were the Alice and Jerry Books, written by Mabel O’Donnell.
The books were yellowed and well-worn by the time they reached my class of first graders. It didn’t matter. Brother and sister Alice and Jerry and their small dog Jip had adventures that lured me far from the grubby dog-eared pages, the classroom smells of paste and wet mittens, the droning voice of Mrs Bastian, into worlds I could now access without asking someone to read to me. I was in control and I was unstoppable. I was chastised often for that great sin ... Reading Ahead!
We were divided into reading groups, six of us at a time who came to the front of the classroom and sat at a round table to read aloud together like a Greek chorus. I would control myself for a while, my voice in synch with all the others, but then my eyes couldn’t resist flying ahead to find out What Happened. And there I would be, no longer with the choir but forging ahead on my own. Only to be scolded once again for Reading Ahead.
My reading group was called the Bluebirds. I don’t remember the other group names but they all involved a color. And everyone knew the Bluebirds were the best readers. The other three groups were on a scale that sank down to the sad little bunch of readers having serious difficulty, the Brownsomethings.
I loved the simple stories that grew more complex as we became more adept. I loved the characters, the funny little dog Jip, the things they did just like I did, like jump in the leaves and roller skate. I loved the illustrations, soft watercolors of children and situations completely familiar to me.
Looking back, I realize there were children in my class whose home life was nothing like Alice and Jerry’s, whose parents didn’t take care of them like mine did, whose clothing was inadequate, who smelled bad, who had little in common with Alice and Jerry and the kind adults in the books. I wonder if those children were the ones who made up the Brownsomething reading group.
Alice Fairchild was my first school friend. We shared a double desk that had two cubbies between the seats. I thought Alice was the luckiest girl in the world because she had the same name as the girl in our Alice and Jerry Readers. Alice’s cubby was on top, mine on the bottom. On special occasions (I think this might have been the day before Thanksgiving) we were each given a treat, a Dixie Cup — a little paper cup of vanilla ice cream with a tiny wooden spoon that, when you licked the ice cream off of it, made the ice cream taste like a Christmas tree.
Sweet Alice, unbeknownst to anyone but herself for several hours, decided to save her Dixie Cup and bring it home to a sibling. Unfortunately she squirreled it away in her cubby above mine and when I reached into my cubby for something later, all the ice cream had dribbled down and made a sticky mess of my crayons and Big Chief tablet, my pencils and my reading book. The teacher was very upset but Alice and I remained fast friends until third grade when she moved away.
Reading has allowed me to satisfy my curiosity and learn new things, to travel to other places and other times I could never go. Reading has made me laugh, cry, empathize, think, rage, commiserate. I almost lost my sight twice, two detached retinas repaired with emergency surgeries. I’m grateful every day I still have the opportunity to read.