The Warmth of a Shared Experience by Cynthia Lord
When I do a school visit, teachers will sometimes confess to me that they cried while reading one of my novels aloud to their students. They’re often embarrassed, but I always say, “Oh, no. Please don’t feel that way. You may have changed a child’s life in that moment.”
That’s exactly what happened to me as a child.
I often joke that my dad only read two novels in the 70+ years between high school and his death last year. Those novels were mine: Rules and Touch Blue. He read them because he loved me, not because he loved reading.
My dad worked for Raytheon, my mom was a bookkeeper, and my sister was a computer programmer. So I come from a family of people who love math and the perfection and precision and predictability of numbers. Into that well-ordered family came me: a lover of wild, emotional, and gloriously imperfect words.
I remember the first word I ever read on my own. It was in a Dick and Jane book, and the word was “look.” I was sitting in one of those tiny first-grade chairs, staring at the letters and had a flash of understanding that l-o-o-k would always and forever be “look.” That word was the key to the kingdom of books and characters that would entertain me, teach me, and change me for the rest of my life.
But an experience is never all one thing. Along with that wonderful new joy of reading, came something that broke my six-year-old heart. Soon after that day, I brought my mom one of my favorite books. It was a little Golden Book called Santa’s Toy Shop (I still have it!). I asked her to read it to me, as she always had.
“No,” she said. Now that I could read to myself, I needed to do that so I would learn how. She never read aloud to me again.
Even that day I didn’t blame her, though. She said it with love. She knew the way to get better at something was to practice, and she saw reading as a set of skills, not unlike tying your shoes.
There is truth in that, but it’s not a whole truth. You and I know that reading is bigger than decoding. What I wanted that day was to sit beside her and hear her beautiful voice read the words fluently and have the chance to lose myself in the art. I wanted the warmth of a shared experience, not only an educational one.
When children ask me at school visits, ”Who inspired you to become a writer?” I always answer, “My teachers.” They are the ones who kept reading to me, even when I could do it for myself. They were the ones who made me a reader and a writer.
My high school English teacher, Mr. Schwertner, was the first person who ever said to me, “Cindy, you are a writer.” Never underestimate the raw power of “You are. . . .” statements to a student. I doubt Mr. Schwertner remembers saying those words to me all those years ago, but I’ve never forgotten them. His belief in me with that simple statement gave me the courage to begin to see myself as he saw me—as a writer. Because he said those words, I chose to take a writing class in college as an elective.
But I think my path as an author was really set in the third grade. That year I had a young teacher named Mrs. Keitt. Every day she let us draw while she read to us aloud. I can still see my desktop and my pencil doodling while she read Hurry Home, Candy by Meindert DeJong. In the story, Candy was a dog that was separated from her family and spent the book trying to get home. One day Mrs. Keitt stopped reading, mid-sentence. I looked up from my drawing to see why.
She was crying.
That moment with Mrs. Keitt changed me. It was a complete revelation to me that a book could be that powerful. I think she was only at our school one year, and yet she is one of the teachers of whom I have the most specific memories. She made me feel special and funny and smart and liked. And she loved reading so much that she let us see her be vulnerable and human and touched by the power of words.
A few years ago, I happened upon a copy of Hurry Home, Candy. I hadn’t seen that book since my childhood, and the cover was like finding an old friend. I didn’t remember the Newbery Honor seal on the cover, though. I burst into tears to see that silver seal. The third grade me would’ve been amazed to know I’d grow up to be an author and have one of those seals on a book of mine, too.
I have four books being published this year, including an early reader for my Hot Rod Hamster series with Derek Anderson. That book, Hot Rod Hamster And The Wacky Whatever Race, written for children just beginning on their own wonderful path as readers, is dedicated to someone who shined a light on that path for me.
To Mrs. Keitt who taught me to love reading.
Cynthia Lord is a former elementary and middle-school teacher and the children’s book author of Rules, Touch Blue, and her newest novel, Half a Chance (February 2014). She is also the author of the Hot Rod Hamster series, illustrated by Derek Anderson (including Hot Rod Hamster Monster Truck Mania coming at the end of March), and the Shelter Pet Squad chapter book series, illustrated by Erin McGuire (Fall 2014), all published by Scholastic. She lives in Maine with her family, a dog, a guinea pig, and two bunnies. You can visit her at http://www.cynthialord.com.