The Magic of the ABCs by Michelle Blanchard Ardillo
Can you actually remember learning to read? Can you remember the sheer magic of decoding the strange marks on a piece of paper or a page of a book? I don’t exactly remember it either, but I have been fortunate enough to experience it through the eyes of others.
As a former middle school English teacher, I helped people read for a living. Yes, even at that level, some are struggling with this skill that fluent readers take for granted.
At my school, I used to sit with the second-grade class at our weekly school Mass. The first few Masses of each school year are spent getting them used to being in church without their parents, and for some, just getting them used to being in church. What struck me like a lightning bolt, however, is their frenzied activity claiming a book to follow the parts of the Mass and finding the right page. They seem almost desperate to read, to follow with their chubby little fingers each and every word of the prayers we say, the hymns we sing. It was a joy to watch them grow each week in their ability to do this simple thing that we take for granted, what you are doing right now, reading.
The story goes that I started reading at a very early age, long before kindergarten. I was an only child until I was four and my father worked nights in the oil fields of Louisiana. My mom was often alone with me, reading to me Golden Book after Golden Book, talking to me as though I was an adult, and helping me to write a note to my dad every night before I went to bed. While I cherish my memories of my high school’s librarian, who encouraged my love for literature, it was my mother who gave me my most treasured possession, literacy.
As much as I love cooking and baking, as thrilled as I am going to the theatre to see a play or musical, as many hours as I can sit watching a Columbo marathon while knitting, reading is my greatest pleasure. I love reading more than eating, and that is really saying something. I love just about everything there is about reading: going to the library and wandering endlessly up and down the aisles, scanning the new arrivals shelves for something interesting the way some women flip through the hangers of new tops or dresses in a store at the mall. I love searching for a book in the online catalog; but, oh, how I used to love the card catalog at my hometown public library. I just loved flipping the little cards back and forth in their tray, scribbling down the call numbers, and going off on the hunt to find the book. I love using the internet to read about books, like the popular blog Modern Mrs. Darcy, or scrolling through photos on Instagram accounts like @topshelftext and others using the popular #bookstagram. My favorite book podcast is What Should I Read Next; its Anne Bogel I have to blame for my overloaded Kindle and mind-boggling TBR list. The quickest way to cure me of a bad mood is a trip to my two local used bookstores, both conveniently (and wallet-drainingly) located within three miles of my house.
So, what is it like to not be able to read? This is something I can’t quite fathom. We take this simple skill for granted, yet, for thirteen years in my literature classroom, I listened to middle school tweens and teens struggling to read aloud fluently. I would stop after reading to them a few paragraphs of a short story or novel to ask, “So, what’s going on?” only to get blank stares in response. Why do some of us love to read and others utterly detest it? Is it because the magic of the ABCs has not happened to them? Is it too much work? Are they spoiled from the instant gratification of digital screens and video games?
I recently read Maggie O’Farrell’s 2013 novel Instructions for a Heatwave. She is one of my favorite authors, lining the pages of her novels with the ordinary lives of quirky characters. She writes about family relationships in a way that pierces a hole straight through your heart. Instructions for a Heatwave is the story of three adult siblings involved in a family crisis: their father has up and disappeared, leaving their mother in shock and grief. That’s the main conflict, where is the father, but buried within that conflict is a subplot for each character. One is in the throes of a dissolving marriage, another is struggling to adjust to her second marriage and new role as a stepmother, and the third has a long-held, deep, dark secret: she can’t read.
“She cannot read. This is her own private truth. Because of it, she must lead a double life: the fact of it saturates every molecule of her being, defines her to herself, always and forever, but nobody else knows. Not her friends, not her colleagues, not her family—certainly not her family. She has kept it from all of them, felt herself brimming with the secret of it her whole life.”
Reading that short paragraph brought such pain to me. How would it feel if I couldn’t read? What if I went blind suddenly? Yes, there are audiobooks, but for me the act of going to bed with a book, lying there, turning page after page, staying up far too late, squeezing in a few pages here and there throughout the day, yearning to find some time to get back to the book, to finish it, to start a new one, these are things that truly bring me pleasure. I am a reader, and I don’t see how I could live any other way.
The pain Aoife (Irish for Eva) in O’Farrell’s book feels each day trying to hide this embarrassing fact is palpable. She has devised many systems for getting people to read for her:
“No one realizes that when she tilts her head and says, ‘Order for me, would you,’ or when she turns to the row of inverted spirit bottles (she is a part-time bartender), each with its convex Cyclops eye, her jaw is locked with the tension and terror of being found out.”
I think of Helen Keller, trapped inside her body in a world of isolation, unable to see or hear, until that magic day when Anne Sullivan spelled the word “W A T E R” into Helen’s palm as she held it under the water pump at the well. The key was turned, the lock opened, and Helen burst into the world of words.
As a writer, tutor, and lifelong reader, I live in that world of words. Reading has brought me such joy in my life. It opened my eyes to the world long before I traveled abroad. It’s taught me about different cultures, different cuisines, different religions. It’s made me smarter, more confident, well-rounded, and I think, more interesting. There really is nothing like getting lost in a good book, not wanting it to end, but when it does, rushing off to find something new to read next. So many books, so little time. So much magic.
Michelle Blanchard Ardillo is a freelance writer and educational tutor who squeezes in as much reading as possible around those two jobs. She has been published in Washington Family Magazine, Baltimore’s Child, on Nerdy Book Club, and in Reflections (2015, Telling Our Stories Press). Follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @michardillo or on her website at www.michelleardillo.com