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Learning to Read: Ready -- or Not?

Not long ago, at my daughter's preschool, I overheard two mothers engaged in anxious dialogue.

"When I asked what provisions there were for children who were already reading, they said there's art and music and the sand tables, but I don't know if that's going to be enough for Brodie," one confided.

"Do you think he'll be bored?" her friend asked.

"One of the teachers said he's probably just starting to recognize words," Brodie's mom said mournfully. "But I told her, 'No, he's really reading. Books.'"

Then there was my Francie, fellow pupil at this friendly academy  -- at the time, lying under the sand table, trying to see whether it was held together with bolts or screws.

Later, I asked her, "Do you know your letters, Francie?"

"Oh, yes," she sighed. "El-em-en-oh-pee."

"What's this letter?" I pointed to an "A" magnet on the fridge.

"I don't want to discuss it," Francie replied.

She didn't know her letters. My fierce and beautiful daughter didn't know her letters.

"Here, France," I crooned. "Write your name." She wrote it, in enormous, wavering, but legible capitals. "Now, what's that?" I asked, pointing to the "A."

"That's a letter," she answered. "Can we play hearts?"

I put my head down on the table. Here she was already in her second year of preschool  -- and illiterate.

Clearly, I didn't have to worry about Francie accompanying Brodie to the winter formal at Yale. Instead, I had a hot flash of the kind mothers of large families get when one of the cabooses slips a coupling. Between worrying about her big brother getting his driver's license and her baby sister's food-preference spectrum consisting of ketchup and ice cubes only, I'd let Francie's education slide.

Though a parent may, in retrospect, find the uniqueness of children who "don't fit" admirable, and even comic  -- as I did with my older kids  -- I didn't want to face growing another rebel. I wanted Francie to be able to pass unremarked among the Brodies of the earth.

My only recourse was to get her up to speed.

With my computer, I made a large banner of letters. I printed out big signs to attach to DOORS ("D-D-D-Dee is for D-Door") and WINDOWS. I set aside time with Francie to begin her edification.

She loved the banner. "Can we color it?" she asked.

"It's to learn your letters," I explained. "The other kids know their letters, and it's time for you to learn yours too." Francie gave the banner a once-over. "There are too many of them," she moaned. I explained that it wasn't necessary to learn them all at once. She could pick a few, and we'd work on those.

"Okay," she sighed. "How about 'F' for Francie and 'I' because it's only one line."

Time passed, and with excruciating slowness, Francie learned C, F, E, D, and the word ZOO.

Discreetly, at length, I asked a pediatrician friend whether Francie might have any problems. Were her glasses the right prescription? Was she dyslexic, dysgraphic, perfectionistic, compulsive, impulsive?

"I think she's stubborn," he said.

But do you know how you feel when all the other mothers at preschool rip open the quarterly reports and you can see the long string of "M's" for "Mastery" just gleaming in the corridor  -- while you open yours in the car, and your own beloved's "M" is for "Shows Good Manners" and everything else is marked "Just Starting"? You feel as if you've shortchanged your shortcake. You feel that operating a power screwdriver and underwater breath-holding  -- things Francie can do like a champ  -- aren't skills that can be harnessed in the real world.

Trying to remind myself that I had been through this before didn't much help. At 8, our now 13-year-old son read like a first-grader and wrote like a 4-year-old. We worried he'd never be able to fill out a job application at a doughnut factory, let alone apply to college. But then one summer we found ourselves without TV for three weeks. Read, I'd told Dan, then 10, or die of boredom. By the end of that time, he was a two-Hardy Boys-a-week fellow.

So whither had gone all my brave pronouncements about the nonsense of first-graders with homework, about academic pressure starting way too soon? Was this about Francie and her letters? Or Francie's mother and her fears?

Several months later, I learned a couple of secrets about the anti-Brodie in my household. Her piano teacher commented, "Boy, Francie sure has learned her ABC's quickly. And she knows left from right. That's pretty unusual." Hmmm, thought I. A couple of weeks after that, I watched my pint-size Ethel Merman belt out "Do Re Mi" in front of an audience of a hundred kids trying out for a musical at a regional theater in the city. She got a part, the youngest child to do so, and a week later had memorized all the words to all the songs in the show. This was the same innocent who swore she couldn't remember the difference between "A" and "B"?

I began to discern this trouble with letters as a contest of wills between Francie and me, two pairs of brown eyes staring at each other over a pile of flash cards, waiting to see which of us would blink first. And I came to the conclusion that the pediatrician was correct. This kid, like all her kin, like all children, had her own timetable and style.

A few nights ago, I settled in with Francie for our nightly read; it was her first real "chapter book," the magical E.B. White classic about love and art and loyalty, Charlotte's Web. We were heading into the final chapters, in which the spider Charlotte has fulfilled her life's mission and is at the end of her days.

"We can stop now," Francie said.

"Why?" I asked.

"We can stop because I know she's going to die. I know about spiders. They're like bugs. Their life isn't long like a dog's. She's going to die, and I don't want to hear about it! I mean it! It's too sad, because she was really a good friend..."

Of course, I did read her the last chapters, believing as I do that the unbearable poignancy of this story is an acceptable form of child abuse. And then we cried together on the bed, holding each other tight, talking about how Charlotte's death was sad but didn't necessarily mean that Grandma had to die because all her babies were grown-up, and that the dog and the ferrets were not bugs but mammals, so they still had good years ahead of them. And when I tucked her in, she said, "Well, that was the best book. But exhausting."

And so is life. And so is being a parent to children who all grow up in the same house, with the same routines and the same chances; but, because they're not Xerox copies of one another, they all turn out to do things in different ways at different rates. It's a lesson your mind knows all along but your obdurate, protective heart has to learn over and over.

So for now I'm giving up on opening the "D" for "door" to reading for Francie. She'll get there in her own sweet time. Meanwhile, she has skills aplenty for her 60 months on this earth, if not the same ones as her peers.

And when it comes to living, she may not know all the words, but she sure knows the music. And can play her mom like a violin.

Contributing editor Jacquelyn Mitchard's most recent novel, A Theory of Relativity, was published in June.