My literacy journey started with my school placing me in our country's first national ed reform failure, the Follow Through Program. It was designed before HeadStart and it targeted children from disadvantaged homes. You could certainly say that some things about my life qualified as disadvantaged since my father had bounced and left my mother with a mortgage and a small, struggling bar business. With my father out of the country and my mother in a fight for survival, it's easy to see how the school system could think something like this might be to my benefit.
Mom's incredible work ethic meant I spent most of my time at home alone in the dark behind the drapery and her odd furnishings. I spent many hours outside in the backyard, under the sun and the trees, sometimes playing with the neighbor kids under the street lamp. But I was basically alone with no one to question me about my school life.
The Follow Through Program strived to teach reading without phonics. We would literally be expected to remember a word by associating it with an object. Like the word "typewriter" would be placed in front of an actual machine. I couldn't read anything, and I'm not sure I could count to ten. I remember feeling proud that I could identify all of the colors but reading was not something I could do. Kindergarten wasn't offered at my school. It was something only the affluent kids did. At that time, there was no such thing as an early childhood program. Even if something like that existed, I wouldn't have been able to do it because of my family situation.
Follow Through didn't issue any grades or report cards. My mother, in all of her busyness, never noticed that the first round of report cards didn't happen. It wasn't until the semester ended that she happened to be at home because school let out early. It let out early enough for her to see other kids walking home with report cards in their hands. My mom figured that since I was such a stealthy and corrupt child that I had hidden my report card, or maybe I had thrown it away. I suffered a spanking and a truly miserable holiday break while I waited for school to resume.
Finally, I'm back at school sitting on the big braided rug with my classmates looking at the typewriter and all the colorful this and thats around the room, when suddenly I hear my mom yelling at the principal. I recognize the hurried click of her footsteps coming down the hallway, and I am embarrassed; I am wishing I would blend into the rug so that she can't find me. My mom pulls the classroom door open and the principal is all helpless and stricken looking like he'd been caught in a crime; he was holding his palm over his mouth. I wondered if she had slapped him.
"Oh my God! What the Hell is this"? I will never forget those words. Everyone is making a scramble for a corner of the room, except me. I'm frozen. "Wanda, get your coat. We are leaving." I still sat frozen to the rug. She reached down with her hand and pulled me up. "Come on. I am getting you out of here." At the time, I didn't understand. I liked sitting in the classroom playing with the nice teachers. I didn't know that I wasn't learning anything. I didn't know that I was being treated different for an economic and social reason. Had my mother not came to the school and given me a hand up, I might never have become the strong and resilient, educated person that I am today. I might never have learned to read had she not cared about me.
I will save you the story about the black eye, the little mechanical dog, and the rows and rows of metal bookshelves. I will tell you that my mom marched me into a public library and a real first-grade class on that very same day. I will tell you that she signed me up for the Book of the Month Club and Highlights Magazine. She took me into the Carnegie Library and she explained that I could learn about anything I wanted just by reading books. The effort to get caught up with my peers was painful and humiliating. I never became a math whiz, even though I learned to love and appreciate different kinds of math. But by fourth grade, I could read almost anything.
My mother's panic became my panic. The school system betrayed us. They needed 13 students to receive federal funding for the program. I, according to the principal, became number 13 without anyone's knowledge or permission. This is how they felt about us. My brother was in Vietnam in a struggle for his life. My father was in a foreign country working. My sister was newly married and trying to live her own life. No one knew that I was sitting around playing on a rug, when I should have been sitting behind a desk learning some phonics.
By the time I became a fourth grader, some old family wounds had begun to heal, and I was happily hanging around with my precious grandmother every weekend. Her mind was active and alert. She read a lot of junk, but she also engaged with tons of solid, contemporary and classic texts. She talked to me about different religions, and she insisted that I open my heart and mind to all kinds of people. I don't remember how we started talking about the Holocaust. I just know that it was a conversation over her kitchen table. Me, a fourth grader, went to the Carnegie Library and checked out Mein Kampf. I guess these days some librarians might try to talk a child out of that. In the seventies you read what you wanted. I won't give Hitler any press here, but I will say that I found his writing style rather boring and his arguments extremely weak. I felt terrible about my German heritage. I couldn't believe that he orchestrated this terrible thing. I read more books. I looked at pictures. I cried a lot. My German people came to the USA long before Hitler's rise, but I still feel as if something about me is deficient and evil. I will never forgive anyone for genocide. I am completely opposed to fascism in all forms, alt-right, or whatever.
I went on and read books about all kinds of adult problems. I also indulged in fantasy stories, confessionals, romances, horror, philosophy, and I loved John Steinbeck's The Red Pony. I must have read Black Beauty one thousand times. I read everything I could find. When someone would die or get sick, I would write elaborate poems. By reading these ideas, by writing myself, I came up with a belief system that works for me. It is my own belief system, an educated and fair system. The fact that I could read whatever I wanted without interference meant that I could vicariously experience the tragic mistakes of life without committing too many of them myself. Had I not been able to read, I would probably not be alive. Reading saved my life. Had it been monitored by an adult, I know the outcome would have been negative because I was a difficult child. The joy would have been stripped from me. Reading was an important part of my freedom. Books helped me survive an extremely difficult early life.
The books my teacher assigned to us helped me make friends and understand different levels of literacy. The books brought us together as young academics struggling to understand a complex and confusing world. We became empathetic with one another no matter our race or income. My class is still like that. We still care about each other. Had we been censored, we would have existed in a type of mental prison. This is what book bannings and burnings do to the young. You stifle their freedom. You limit their intelligence and creativity. You end empathy. I read books in order to understand and form opinions. We all deserve this kind of freedom, the freedom to research, explore, think, and ultimately write.
I am still ashamed of my German heritage. But I know how the German people came to that point. They were forced into a mental prison by a fascist movement. Let's not do that.