I was caught up in The Flight of Gemma Hardy, by Margot Livesey, when this passage stopped me cold and made me remember a scene from the children’s bookstore I worked in:
“I was at the kitchen door when Robin started to scream. A few seconds later he barreled into me, his cheeks scarlet. In one flailing hand he held a sheet of paper.
‘I can’t read,’ he cried.
I knelt to put my arms around him. ‘Robin, the note is for me. Let me read it.’ Finally—he hated to surrender any vestige of his grandmother —I pried the paper from his small fingers.”
This is a pretty intense passage.
Imagine the power of the 26 little symbols that make up our alphabet. Every passage in a book, every law, our very names; all the words made up of those letters are drawn out of the ether of memory and story, set to paper and made into a permanent record of our existence.
We who are now fluent in decoding the alphabet and how it works have long forgotten the seeming magic of how it happened. As soon as we get comfortable with the act of putting letters together to make words, words to make stories, we forget the miracle moment that allowed us to become the people we are now. We are people who read and write books, people who can change the world because we know how to interpret and share those 26 marks that make up our alphabet.
I was helping a mom and her daughter choose some longer books for reading at bedtime. They’d done all the Frog and Toad books, the Cobblestreet Cousins, and they were ready for something with fewer pictures and more words. They’d come in for something specific, but you know how that goes: Moms always remember one more book they loved; kids see covers they like. After a good while figuring out what they were both interested in, we ended up with a nice sturdy stack of books perfect for reading out loud to a four-year-old.
We were ready to check out, standing at the register with card in hand, when Mom remembered the one book she came in for that wasn’t in the pile.
She said to her daughter, “Run back over to the shelf and grab Matilda. It’s in the D’s,” and off she went, dark hair flying behind her.
Seconds later, back she came, slipping her hand into Mom’s. Mom asked, “Wasn’t it there?”
She looked up at her mom and said, “Mom! I can’t read! I don’t know what a D looks like!”
I laugh every time I think of them. It was such a surprise for us. We’d forgotten that she couldn’t read. It must have been a bittersweet moment. Imagine running off to get that book in the D’s and realizing, standing in front of all those spines, you don’t know what a D is, but you know it’s important.
Those two were so comfortable with reading and books, so at ease in a world filled with a blizzard of words and their meanings, that in that one second they’d both forgotten that the little one couldn’t read. Yet.
Just imagine the power she’ll have when she conquers those few symbols, when she recognizes her name written on a bookplate in her favorite book, when she signs her first thank-you note, when she reads her first story aloud, her name in blocky letters in the top right-hand corner of blue-lined paper.
Imagine everywhere she’ll go, through wardrobes, gardens and time warps, all those different universes, because she learned how to read.