The Surprises Of Reading

The Surprises Of Reading
By Marc X Grigoroff

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Noah is learning to read.
For a few minutes every day, we sit together and he improves. At first it was one letter at a time. Then a syllable. Then an entire word. Soon his delivery was less staccato and the words began to flow. To become sentences. To make sense.Then a breakthrough.

Noah was negotiating a particularly absurd passage, when he and his younger sister Zoe burst into laughter. I was thrilled. It was the first time Noah spontaneously embraced the meaning and emotion of the words he was reading. In this case, humour. The fact is, I’m not really teaching Noah to read; I’m trying to inculcate a love for reading. And there’s a big difference.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know how far to push him. There are a lot of things he’d rather be doing than sitting on the sofa with me and his sister, struggling with Dr. Seuss. For added motivation, I made a reading chart. Each time he reads a book he earns a gold star, which he affixes to the chart. When he accumulates 10 gold stars, he gets a surprise. Sometimes he’ll read an entire book in a single session. Other times, he’ll tire after only a few pages. When that happens, he struggles with words and sounds he already knows. Frustration sets in and he pleads with me to let him stop. And I do. Because if I push him too hard, force him to go on after he’s lost interest, after it becomes too painful, I'm afraid he’ll begin to think of reading as work, a task to be completed as quickly as possible and then avoided. This would be a tragedy.

I was raised on books. That is, my parents constantly encouraged my siblings and me to read. If we were bored, we were given a book. If we complained about there being nothing to do, we were sent to the library. Oh yes, I spent huge chunks of my summer vacations in the air-conditioned comfort of the Andrew Carnegie Public Library. And believe me, Singapore has nothing on the hot, humid summers of the Midwestern USA.

My parents said they didn’t believe in air conditioning, so we had nothing but fans to push the hot air around our house. However, they had it installed soon after their children left home, so I now wonder if their disdain for climate control was, in fact, a clever ploy that forced us to deepen our relationship with books.

If so, their plan worked. Somewhere along the way, reading became fun. Something we looked forward to doing. Something we couldn’t get enough of. Eventually my parents were forced to say, “Put down that book and come to supper.” Or, “Turn off that flashlight and go to sleep!” But despite their disciplinary tones, it was clear that they were pleased.

In addition to no air conditioning, we also received no allowances. If we wanted money, we had to earn it ourselves. To earn mine, I did what thousands of enterprising young Americans did: I became a paperboy. Each morning I’d rise at 5.30, cut the twine on the fresh bundle of newspapers, roll them into tubes and secure them with rubber bands.

Like many small-town papers, the Daily Times seldom consisted of more than a few pages, the most read sections being the obituaries, the births, the weddings, Dear Abby, the funnies, the sports page, and the classifieds. News, if there was any, was an afterthought: a drunk arrested for urinating on a fire hydrant; a raffle to raise money for a new police car; a runaway hog at the county fair.

Once the papers were folded, I stuffed them into the twin baskets on the back of my three-speed Raleigh bicycle and I was off. I’d pedal through the streets of Charleston, flinging papers onto the porches of subscribers who made up my route.

On one occasion, a horribly errant throw resulted in a shattered window. I still shudder at the memory of being screamed at by an overweight woman in an undersized nightie – cigarette in one hand, beer in the other. (Keep in mind, it was 6.30 in the morning.) She cursed me with words I wouldn’t hear again until years later, when I happened upon a drunken sailor who’d just smashed his thumb with a crowbar.

In addition to delivering the news, paperboys were also responsible for increasing the paper’s circulation. This meant knocking on unfamiliar doors and asking non-subscribers to enrich their lives with home delivery.

One day, I stopped by a ramshackle house I’d always avoided. I wasn’t even sure it was occupied. But that day, I spotted a man standing in the front yard.

He looked to be down on his luck: patches on his clothes, stubble on his face, greasy hair falling into his eyes. He was what my parents would have called a hobo.

An unlikely prospect, I considered, but I decided to give it a shot.

“Hi, I’m the paperboy,” I announced with mock pride, “Would you like to subscribe?”

The man looked up slowly. At first he refused to meet my eyes. And when he finally did, I saw something unexpected in them. Something I’d never seen in the eyes of an adult, at least not when the adult was addressing a kid. What I saw was shame. It was as if I’d caught him doing something wrong, and despite the fact that he was probably middle aged or older, his expression made him seem even younger than me.

Slowly he shook his head. “I would like to help you,” he said softly, “but I can’t read.”

Surprised, I stared back at him without saying a word.

“I’m sorry,” he said after several moments. At first I thought he was apologizing for not being able to read, but then I understood that he was sorry about not subscribing.

“That’s okay,” I replied, “it’s not a very good paper anyway.”

A momentary smile touched the corners of his mouth, and then he turned and walked into the house. I got back on my bicycle and rode home.

To this day, I can recall the man’s woeful expression. Not that he had any reason to feel ashamed. Illiteracy is a widespread problem; for one reason or another, millions never learn this simple yet utterly rewarding skill. But almost as unfortunate as those who cannot read, are those who can but don’t.

Oh sure, they read text messages and tweets and e-mails and the rules of a new video game. They’ll glance at a menu, a bumper sticker, a T-shirt, or a photo caption. But to open a book…to open their minds to the endless beauty and excitement of the written word. This simply would not occur to them.

“The end!” Noah says proudly.
“Did you enjoy the book?” I ask.
“Yes. Can I have it now?”
I nod and give him a star.
He runs over and sticks it to his reading chart. “I only need four more to get my surprise,” he exclaims.

The real surprise comes later, I want to tell him.
Instead, I sit down and read the newspaper.

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