Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Gift of Literacy

If I am a literate guy, and I am not saying that I am all that literate, I owe it to my mom. The other day I asked my second graders to bring in some writing that is special to them, something they can read over and over, something that they would take with them to the proverbial deserted island. They brought in an incredible array of pieces from their current chapter books to the very first books they could read on their own, from cards and letters written to them by special people in their lives to Calvin and Hobbes and Tom and Jerry collections. We ended up calling these “precious pieces”.

After listening to the children read their precious pieces, we generated a list of what makes a piece of writing powerful, what makes it precious. I brought in a few precious pieces of my own to share and they were all connected to my mom.

First there was Green Eggs and Ham. I had to include the first book I could ever read on my own. Now I wasn’t one of those kids who could read anything at age three. I wasn’t reading chapter books by the time I got to first grade. My mom taught me to read the year before I went to school. She stayed home that year with my baby brother and me.

I’m sure my teachers had something to do with my eventual literacy development (no doubt, the phonics overkill part). I remember my sister Ruthie reading to me as well. But it was my mom who gave me the gift of literacy. She treated books as precious gifts from as far back as I can remember.

Green Eggs and Ham was my breakthrough book.  I can’t recall the exact events but it has to do with my mom reading to me in bed. I think I was sick. My little brother Danny was a baby so he was probably asleep or in his playpen. Come to think of it, we spent a lot of time together in that playpen so, if I was sick, Danny probably was too.  Green Eggs and Ham. She had probably read that book to me a hundred times.

I am Sam...     Sam I am 

She probably read it to me a few times that morning, but I remember saying, “Hey! I can read this!”

Would you eat them in the rain?  Would you eat them on a train?

“I mean I can REALLY read this. I can read these words!”

Would you eat them in a box? Would you eat them with a fox?

It was in her warm bed. Just the two of us. Green Eggs and Ham. Good old Dr. Seuss. How could she have known?

Would you eat them in a house? Would you eat them with a mouse?

I brought in other precious pieces to share as well. Some of her letters. I never did read any of those aloud.

When I was about 10 or 11, my mom gave me Of Mice and Men to read. How could she have known what that would do for me? And after I read it my folks let me stay up late and watch the old black and white movie classic, the one with Burgess Merideth and Lon Chaney Jr. My mom watched it with me. It was on the late show. My first late show. It didn’t even start until 10:30. When it came to the end, I cried. Right? I mean how could you not cry?

George takes the German luger, the one that they killed Candy’s loveable but stinky old dog with. He takes that luger, and after it is perfectly clear that Lenny is going to get caught for killing that pretty little hussy. That Lenny would go to prison – which he would never be able to take without going absolutely crazy. George takes that luger, and gets Lenny talking about their dream. You know the dream. They’d get themselves a ranch and raise rabbits and Lenny could pet the rabbits any old time he wanted to. George takes the luger, and gets Lenny to look out into the distance where he can actually see their ranch. And then he shoots Lenny when Lenny is waxing on about their dream. He shoots Lenny when he is at his happiest. And he shoots his best friend because he loves him, because he wants to protect him. How could you not cry, right? It was a gift, that book, that film, those tears.

I still read that book from time to time. I still cry. I still give it to people I know who have not read it yet. Years later, when I was in college, one of my beloved professors said, “If you can’t cry then you can’t read.” And I remember thinking, my mom taught me that a long time ago. It was Steinbeck. It was Of Mice and Men. It was clever and crafty George. It was loveable but dangerous old Lenny. Lenny, who needed to be saved from himself. It was George, brave enough to save him. But you know it was more than that. It was Green Eggs and Ham, and Danny and the Dinosaur, and The Hardy Boys, and Boy’s Life Magazine. It was Tom and Huck and Scout and Atticus Finch. My mom gave me all of that. And so much more.

My mom is a woman of letters. While she is also a person of the internet age – she does email regularly, she knows the value of a handwritten letter. She does not send cards with sayings or poetry someone else has written. She does not send the kind of things you buy and put your name on, somehow indicating that you took the effort to find just the right words. She writes just the right words. She always has. When I was in college, just out of the house, she would write to me regularly. She would make my little brother write too. I missed him the most. I know he never would have written if she hadn’t made him.

I keep her letters. They are time capsules of my adult life. They are snapshots of her life with my dad, her sadness when he died, her loneliness, her fears, her joy at finding new love, Otto’s kindness and now big, tender Jim. They are her travels, her friends, her romance and disappointments. Hers are among the only real letters I ever receive. And they mean more to me than any other personal possession. 

They are not cc’d to anyone, or listserved or groupmailed. They are pen-in-hand, random paper and licked envelopes. They are stamps and a post office. They are latenight and earlymorning; they are quiet homes with sleepy mates, after dinner and before breakfast. They are insomnia and tears and laughs. They are rambling and shuffling and loving and funny and intimate. They are silly and descriptive. They are kind and reflective and desperate. They reflect the seasons, the wildlife and the seasons of life.

My handwriting is so bad now – but I know you like written letters so I will try.

I am sitting alone listening to Mozart’s C Major Concerto…

He and I would remember the Huichol Indians who sat near the lake with their babies painting pieces of amatyl (bark) with colors like Mexican pink, blue and yellow…

I am 82 – 3 of my children will soon be 60. My baby is 46.

I wish Jack could have known your boys. What a happiness he missed!

This is something I read and loved – “Forgive quickly, kiss slowly, laugh uncontrollably and never regret something that makes you smile.”

I finished the book you gave me – there was a part I underlined. I will copy it when I get it back…

I loved being the mom to so many different and wonderful children. That was my life.

When I was a mom of a big family, I never seemed to have the time to think about making memories for my children.

When I think back on what my mom has given me, it is the in between times that mean the most. It certainly isn’t the birthday presents or family vacations or other big-ticket items that many people probably think of as constituting important family memories. It is the soft things that are the most important; the late night conversations, the books and book talks, the letters, the questions about family, the requests for original tunes, the stories. It is certainly the unconditional love that we expect from our mothers, that we may even take for granted. I think I am blessed more than most. My mom has given me something that only a few people can boast. 

She is my best friend.


Alan Wieder said...

Hey Tim

very, very sweet and i love her quote about forgive, kiss, laugh. we go to nyc next wk for joanie's mom's 80th and then sally, my mom, comes here the following wk for her 80th, joel comes too from cambodia and also my sister debbie's son jordan, who lives in eugene.

much more than literacy my friend

Jacob said...

Hi! Its me sam i know that book i still read it.
I remember you telling us about daney.