January 19, 2006

As a kid, I couldn't wait to learn to read. As much as I enjoyed Sesame Street, The Electric Company, Viva Allegra and cartoons ... these were magical things that appeared on the television at seemingly random intervals. Books I could see and were available on-demand. Luckily for me, my ADHD actually wound up helping me learn to read ... the opposite of what happens for many ADHD-ers. Besides having a manageable case of hyperactivity, and one which bounces between hyper-focus (focusing on one thing to the absolute exclusion of EVERYTHING else) and hyperactivity, it also makes me want to do everything at absolute top speed. As such, I was in high school before my mild dyslexia really even revealed itself. Why? Because I read so fast that I tended to read the shapes of words rather than looking at each letter ... as such, flipping a letter around or flip-flopping two letters didn't really change the shape of the word too much. It wasn't until I ran into problems in high school math that I began to suspect what had been happening all along ... and chemistry class confirmed it. I don't know why I was (and am!) more likely to flip numbers and +/- signs around than I am to realize that teh and the are not the same word, but so be it.

I picked up some reading before school started, of course, however, my mom seemed conflicted about whether or not to encourage this. After all, you're supposed to learn to read in school ... I think she was afraid of doing something wrong, so she did little before school started. However, once school did start and I began going like gangbusters, I had all sorts of books, little workbooks and kids' "texts" on phonics. I declared myself the fastest reader in my kindergarten class. Naturally, I had to prove my skills, so I snagged a book off the shelves and gave a demonstration. The other kids didn't believe that I'd really read the book that fast ... so I summarized The Five Chinese Brothers by Claire Huchet Bishop and Kurt Wiese.

From that point on, I was hooked not only on reading stories, but also on reading as much as possible quickly.

This led to a few issues with teachers and librarians, but not quite in the ways you would think.

My first big run-in with a librarian was at St. Louis Catholic school in Austin ... in second grade. I had literally read everything in the little kids' section of the library and I was bored. Those of you who know me at all know that letting me get bored in any way shape or form is BAD. So, I walked out of the little kids books and over into the "big kids'" books. I wandered around for a while and finally made a selection. I remember that the title had intrigued me, the cover was okay ... and I began flipping through the book and became engrossed in the story. So, I trotted up to the check-out counter and placed my new-found adventure there, prepared to go back to class, kick back and get lost in this new world.

"You can't read that."

I was startled. "What?"

"I can't let you read that. You can't read it."

The librarian was a nun in at least her late 60s. At this moment, she is frozen in my mind as the perfect caricature of a nun ... sour faced, old, dour and, of course, frowning.

I protested that I could too read the book. She was disparaging my abilities! She insisted again that I couldn't. So, being the logical little kid that I was, I picked up the book and began reading aloud to her. In a whisper. Cuz we were in the library, after all.

"But you don't understand what you just read."

So, I paraphrased it for her. At that point, irritated beyond all reason, she yanked the book off the counter and pointed at the little kids' section. "Go back to where you belong!"

I was furious and shaking, but didn't know what else I could do. I went back to class.

I told my mom about it and she took me to the public library and showed me some of the books for older kids. I was in heaven. But, when I went to check out, I was again stymied. I had a green library card, a restricted card. Mom had to check out half of my books on her card because they were from the "young adult" section instead of the kids' section. But, at least I got my books this time.

By third grade, I had an adult library card and a new school where the librarians encouraged us to read anything and everything in the library.

It took about three weeks before I was bored to tears with most of the books. I finally stopped taking teacher recommendations and looking for an interesting cover. Instead, I literally went through the library looking for the thickest book I could find.

Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet.

I was now completely hooked on science fiction and fantasy books ... and on Robert Heinlein in particular. I quickly tore through all of his "kids'" books in our school library and then in the public library ... and moved on to his adult books and other science fiction writers. I read Clark and Asimov, but I kept coming back to the prolific Heinlein because he made me think about how our world works ... not just the science of rocketry, but our various cultures and societies.

Now, growing up reading science fiction, there's one set of "rules" you learn very early, very quickly.

Actions have consequences.

And ... so do inactions.

Whether the action you take is to speak up or you decide to take no action and walk past, what you have done has changed the world around you. It might be a minor change. It might be major. But you have no way of knowing ahead of time how important that decision you're about to make really is.

To go ahead and beat to death the dead and overly dead horse that is the example of Hitler, let's what-if for a moment. What if one of people that young Adolf admired had told him he had artistic talent? What if he'd been really encouraged and nurtured to follow that path? Would the Holocaust still have happened? It's likely that it could have ... events that large rarely happen because of a single person no matter how much we prefer to have a single person to point at. But if Hitler had not been the driving force would it have been as bad? Or, God forbid, would it have been even worse?

We have no way of knowing.

You see, we go through life making our decisions, performing our actions and inactions as best as we can. But we don't know the effect that we have on others and the world around us. Sometimes a random comment will get one person thinking. Would I have been so determined to prove I could read "big-kid" books if that librarian hadn't been such a jerk? Maybe. Or, for a different example, a random comment an acquaintance dropped about affection made me re-think my concepts of relationships. It was an innocuous comment. Completely innocent. But when that was combined with a random comment that someone else made to my ex, she began thinking about relationships. Eventually we both realized that our ten-year relationship had passed a crossroads quite a while back and that we had both taken vastly different roads without noticing.

If those other people had not made their comments, it might have taken us years longer to realize that we had grown far, far apart and were doing more damage than good by staying together. Would we have still gotten to that realization? Probably so. The people making those comments didn't split us up. Shoot, they didn't even cause any problems. We already had the issues and had chosen to ignore them (or neglected to notice ... essentially the same difference).

Did those people cause us to break up? Of course not. In the short term, they might have felt as if they broke us up ... but they simply acted as a catalyst for something that had been brewing for years.

In the last year or two I've spent some time trying to track down some of the folks I went to school with ... elementary, junior high, high school ... people who meant something to me ... people that I would love to know how they're doing.

And, in doing so, I've discovered things not just about them, but about myself as well.

One last story today and I'm done for a while. Bear with me :)

When I moved to Arlington (Texas - not Virginia), I was scared and I was exhausted. I'd bounced schools for what was now the fourth time in four years and I was exhausted with the effort of trying to keep up with so many changes. Despite that, the one thing I've heard repeatedly from these folks who knew me back in the day is "you never did let the man keep you down." As it turns out, the mere fact that I was who I was (and am) seemed to register with several people.

Let me put it this way ... when I first got to my new school in Arlington, the teachers did not believe that I was so far ahead of their students in both reading and math. So, rather than find me a tutor ... or put me in their highest reading and math groups, they put me in their second-highest groups. I don't know why. I just know that I was depressed at having moved, and now I was "behind" in school as well. I chose, for a while, to do nothing.

After several weeks, I got mad. I began working ahead in my language arts class ... and then asking to go to the library. Constantly. Within about a week of this behaviour, I was moved up to the highest language arts class. Math, however, looked to stay stagnant until the day the teacher of the highest group stated, "Anyone who belongs in the high math class, come over here."

Now, a lot of third graders would not do what I did. But I was mad and frustrated and I had simply had enough. I got up and walked over with the other kids in the high math class. The teacher gave me the evil eye. And then asked, "Do you belong here?" I mustered up all of my self-worth, stared her straight (and rather defiantly, I'm sure) and said, "Yes." She didn't make my life easy ... but she did let me stay.

What does this have to do with a discussion about how our actions (and inactions) affect others?

I've now had two different people tell me that just knowing that I did things like that gave them the confidence to try to stand up for themselves as well.

I didn't know that then. I didn't do those things for other people, I acted for me. As I've found out now, those particular instances had a better and more powerful turnout than I would have ever guessed. They seemed like such little and self-oriented actions to me then.

Am I saying all of this to show what an effect I've had on the world? Don't make me laugh! My ego's not nearly that big. Actually, I'm far more impressed with the little kid who tried to take on every injustice than I am with the adult who gets so very tired of all the fighting.

In fact, those examples are the ones that turned out well. I don't know all of the small actions I did that turned out badly. What chance comments have I made about life the universe and everything that perhaps devastated someone else's worldview ... and I didn't even notice?

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Biggest lie in the English language.

"Why can't you just?" "Who told you that you could?" "I wish we had a place to go." "You can be anything you want to be." "Just do it."

These phrases can inspire and condemn ... and we never know what effect they'll have until after they're uttered and it's too late to call them back.

Of course, the flip side of that is, if we stay silent, we don't know what effect that will have until the moment has passed and it's too late to say anything at all. Or what effect we could have had if we'd spoken up.

Reading books, reading situations, reading people. Deciding to act. Deciding not to act.

It all has consequences and we have to live with those choices and consequences every day. To give up on deciding to act or speak is to give up on life itself and withdraw from the human race.

I choose to live. I choose to continue screwing up in the hopes that I'll get some things right. Hopefully more right than not. But I have to keep trying.

Posted by Red Monkey at January 19, 2006 8:29 AM | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


presentstorm said:

You said a mouth full there It is so true though .There are so many what-ifs in the world but if you choose to sit them all out will never know. Thanks for the great post :)

January 19, 2006 5:02 PM


Brian said:

Wow, I have never looked at things in that perspective. I too was a fast learner when it came to reading. I was reading Reader's Digest by age 7. I too, couldn't get enough of what a book had to offer about the world. I loved anything non-fiction because that was life. Spelling, I was spelling words of 7th-8th grade vocabulary in elementary school. But, due to a low self esteem and an insecurity of who I was, I never shined like I could have. Now I am trying to finish college, fast pushing 30, and wishing I could things over again, but if I would have done alot better in school, would I still have joined the Army? Keep up the great posts.....

January 19, 2006 7:37 PM


pm said:

Wow... My son has a true love for reading. Me, I don't. I was never approached by someone like that nun, either... so don't ask me what my excuse it.

I agree, words can hurt... however, I try to never let 'em... hehe

January 20, 2006 3:53 PM


Moody Loner said:

Still going! Here, have some more traffic.

January 21, 2006 12:35 PM


pm said:

Is it just me or has your blog battle been sittin' up there unfinshed since yesterday?

January 21, 2006 2:26 PM

Ender.... whew! Catch your breath girl!

Great post!


January 21, 2006 9:25 PM


Chuck said:

I like monkeys.

January 22, 2006 7:21 AM


Moody Loner said:

Almost exactly what my library experience was like.

I, too, kept trying to break out to Young Adult or even, God help me, Adult Paperback - but the librarians kept shooing me back to the Children's section.

Then they had their summer reading contest.

The librarian refused my offer to take books out of the Adult section "for fairness" and sent me off to the Children's section. Three hours later I returned.

"How many?" she asked.

"All of them," I replied, "every single one, because the Children's section goes up to fourth-grade reading level and I've been reading at college-level for two years. All of them. Every single one. Go ahead, test me."

She did, and when she got it through her librarian mind that I'd plowed through God knows how many kids' books in three hours, she put my little paper balloon all the way across the ceiling and halfway down the opposite wall.

They were good sports about it. They gave me the Lord of the Rings trilogy as a prize.

January 22, 2006 1:04 PM


Carol said:

Wow! A very powerful post. I'm a reading specialist, and so as soon as I started reading your post, I was hooked. Fascinating story. If it's okay with you, I'd like to reference this post.

January 22, 2006 11:33 PM
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