I read very slowly.
When I was in the second grade at St. Francis
de Sales School in Newark, Ohio, our English teacher, Sister Mary Elizabeth,
required that we read aloud on Mondays and Fridays. Coming from a hard-core
blue-collar background, reading was not something that was encouraged in the
Braunbeck household. Not that my parents discouraged it, but because
both of them worked long hours at hellish factory jobs, they were either too
tired or too busy with things like bills and home repairs to find time to read
much. Neither of them completed high school, and neither of them ran in social
circles where "intellectual" pursuits such as reading were the norm.
No, I'm not blaming them, far from
it; Mom would always buy me a book if I found one I wanted, and Dad was more
than happy to read to or with me. (Aside: Mom was a big Mickey Spillane fan,
and read his books whenever she could, but the only two books I ever saw her
re-read were Blatty's The Exorcist and F. Paul Wilson's The
Keep, which she thought was "
one of the best books I've
ever read. I hope he writes another one.")
Okay, so I'm sitting there in English
class one Friday, and we're taking turns reading paragraphs from some bookI
wish to hell I could remember its nameabout this kid named Johnny who
works odd jobs so he can earn money to go to the movies because he likes to
imagine that he's the cowboy hero or brave fighter pilot or smart detective.
Gets to be my turn, and I'm reading
alongslower than the other kids, but smoothly, nonethelesswhen I
encounter a word I'd often heard but had never actually seen in print before:
I stopped, stared at the word, and tried
to figure out how to pronounce it.
Sister Mary Elizabeth made quite a show
out of my inability to read this word aloud, so finally, embarrassed beyond
belief, I gave it a try.
What I said was something akin to "i-sell."
Everyone laughed. Sister Mary Elizabeth
told me to try it again.
I couldn't figure out any other
way to pronounce it.
Sister then pulled several other books from
the shelf and opened them to selected pages, thrust them under my nose, and
ordered me to read about twenty-five different words at her random choosing,
all of which I'd heard, none of which I had ever seen in print before,
among them "redundant", "envelope", "digestion",
"automatic", andmy personal favorite to this day"repetitive".
I missed every last one of them.
And everyone got a dandy guffaw out
Most of the kids who attended St. Francis
came from fairly well-to-do families, families who financially contributed heavily
to both the church and school, who held positions on the school board or church
board, and who got to wear dresses and ties to their jobs and sit behind desks.
I was one of a small handful of kids who
came from, well
not-so well-to-do families, and there was a marked
difference in the way we were treatedboth by our fellow students and the
teachers. If one of the rich students was having difficulties, well, then, hire
a tutor, arrange for special sessions with teachers after school, cut them as
much slack as possible.
But if one of the poorer students was having
tough shit. Their families were barely making the quarterly tuition
payments, so it wasn't worth anyone's time to give them any extra
Three days a week, I was provided with a
free lunch because my parents couldn't afford to pay for an entire week's
worth. Somehow, Sister Mary Elizabeth managed to work that into her scolding
of me in front of the class that day, as well as several observations about
the limited selection options available to me for my wardrobe.
"Go sit out in the hall, you're
holding everyone else back, you dumb-bunny."
Dumb-bunny. Never forgot that one.
So I went out into the hall and sat
Which is how I came to find myself transferred
to the "special" English class the following Monday.
Here is what the "special" English
class consisted of:
Some assistant coach (or Darrell Sheets,
the marvelous, kind man who was the school's janitor) sat at a table in
the cafeteria while the restthere were five of uswere seated at
another table. On this table was a stack of childrens' books. Twenty of
them, in fact. I remember this because these books never changed. Ever.
These were books written for children at
the pre-school/kindergarten level.
This is Dick. This is his sister, Jane.
Dick and Jane are playing with their Dog, Spot. "Run, Spot, run!"
See Spot run. Run, Spot, run.
Goddamn page-turners were these books.
From Grade 2 until Grade 5 that is how I
spent my English classes; down in the cafeteria, sitting at a table with four
other "special" students, reading the same twenty books over and over.
(We were not allowed to bring our own books, we had to read only those that
were deemed to be "within" our "ranges of comprehension."
At least at the beginning of every year they gave us twenty different books
than the year before. Our big exam was to read two of them aloud at the end
of the year.)
As a result of this, and the lack of reading
time/assistance at home, I read at a first-grade level until the sixth grade.
Even then, I was way behind the other kids. (The "special" program
had been 86'd at the end of my fifth grade year because they could no longer
find assistant coaches or assistant janitors who were willing to baby-sit us.)
I somehow managed to bluff my way through
sixth grade EnglishI squeaked by with a "C"but even that
summer, I found that I was still having trouble reading books that, by all accounts,
I should have been able to breeze through four years ago.
I was given a reading comprehension test
at the start of my seventh grade year.
I was reading at a third-grade level...and
just barely at that.
But I got lucky. My English teacher that
year was a terrific guy named David Kessler who had been made aware of my "learning
disability" and who, even though he wasn't allowed to give me any
extra help either in or outside of class, did provide me with books designed
to help me read better. I guarded these books as if they were my life savings.
Whenever either of them could, Mom and Dad helped me, or one of the neighbors
if I offered to cut their grass. But mostly I had to do it on my own.
By the time I left the Catholic School system
at the end of my eighth grade year, I was reading at the fifth-grade level.
For me, it was a personal triumph.
I haven't bothered getting myself tested
in decades, because whatever level I'm reading at right now is the level
I will read at until I take the Dirt Nap.
But there remain times...
There were several sections in Dan Simmons's
brilliant The Hollow Man that I had to re-read more than once before
fully understanding what I was reading. As much as I admire and enjoy the work
of Joe Haldeman, Harlan Ellison, and Gene Wolfe, there are times while reading
them that I feel genuinely stupid, as if I'm standing there in front
of Sister and the class trying to decipher "aisle" once again.
It took me three days to read The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, a short novel that most people read in three hours.
To this day, I remain angry about that.
To this day, I still have trouble reading
at times, and always will, and that has caused some measure of enjoyment to
be subtracted from my life, and that saddens me whenever I think about it for
too long, because the ability to read is one of
the most precious gifts we possess.