I was one of those struggling readers. I didn’t become a reader until fifth grade. That puts me in league with two twenty-five-year-old single mothers whom Julie Pangrac of Project READ introduced me to. They told me their story of how they had been placed out of the regular classroom into special education early in their elementary careers, how they had gone all the way through high school sometimes being given A’s, and how they had received their high school diplomas without ever learning to read. They desperately wanted to be able to read; their broken self-esteem required it. Working with them Julie could see that they had the brainpower to read. However, their emotional block to reading was debilitating.
“When did you first say to yourself, ‘I am a bad reader’?” I asked them.
One said, “Second grade.” The other said, “First grade,” and started to cry.
The greatest blow to them both was the dual humiliation of being separated from their peers and put in with “the retards.” (It does no good for the adults to call it by a different name.) Like almost all children whose brains don’t conform to the particular way a particular teacher sees the world, they blamed themselves rather than the system.
I, too, blamed myself when I didn’t read on schedule.
My first memory of first grade is of sitting at a table with five other classmates taking turns reading from the first grade reader. Mrs. Warner, our teacher, stood behind us as we read. The girl to my left read half a page. Then it was my turn. Even today, I remember the exact words:
“See Jane run. Look, look, look, Sam. Look at Jane run.” (1951)
Each word was a chore. Yet, reading was the challenge, and I applied my whole self to it. With my brow in a frown and sweat on my palms, I read each word.
Then, Mrs. Warner came up on my right as I read and ran two fingers across my forehead.
I jerked my head up to look at her and said, “What?” welcoming the excuse to be distracted.
“Don’t frown,” she said.
Looking back down at the page I tried to smile AND struggle at the same time.
Finally, it was Johnny’s turn, and I was gratified to see that Johnny, my best friend at the time, struggled just like me.
Next week Johnny sat at another table. I asked Mrs. Warner, “Why is Johnny at a different table?”
“But I can read as good as Johnny,” I protested.
“No, you can’t,” she said. “He is a better reader.”
I was crushed. It was one thing to be told that I was a bad reader. I could believe that. However, for this to separate me from my friend was a disaster. With that separation I lost three good things and gained one bad one.
I lost the opportunity to learn from modeling; I lost my best self-assessment tool: comparing my reading with Johnny’s; I lost one of my main ties to feeling I belonged in the class, my companion on this difficult challenge that we were all going through together. I gained a label: bad reader.
This was four strikes, and I was out. Even today, “I am a bad reader” is embedded in my psyche. Other reading memories are all built upon this same theme. I am a bad reader and being a bad reader separates me from my friends, compromises my place in this community, and puts my success at risk. I know from talking with these two young women that they suffered the same four strikes.
Many factors determine a life, not just early reading. I had a number of things going for me that gave my life a trajectory different from my two new illiterate friends and millions of our fellow Americans. First, being white and relatively affluent I was free of the presumption of being at risk due purely to the circumstances of my birth. Second, after third grade my parents moved me to a school that taught the three R’s in the context of the education of my whole self. Third, there was a lot more in my life than schoolwork. Fourth, my parents and teachers never told me what my test-scores were.
So, I did learn to read in fifth grade, but that is another story.
other good links: http://school.familyeducation.com/home-schooling/reading/38692.html