Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading Envy

'That's how it is, Alice,' said Frances. 'Your birthday is always the one that is not now.'

I cannot yet remember how I learned to read. I know that by the time I was in first grade, I could read. I could read better than any of the other students in my class.

In our class, there were three levels of books that you could read -1st being easiest, 3rd being the most difficult. At home, I was reading a series of books which were great works of literature chopped down into manageable lengths (50 -100 or so pages.) I remember very clearly having read the version of the three musketeers and liking it very much. In school, however, Mrs. Kelley did not want to other children to feel discouraged by my reading ability, so she made me read second level books.

There was another girl, named Maria, who was also very good at reading and read in the third level. Mrs. Kelley would praise her in front of the other students and I got jealous because I read better than Maria. One day I got so mad I bit Maria.Even now, I have an extremely vivid memory of being furious and biting this girl. We were on the bus, and I can remember how she smelled and tasted. But I can not remember what provoked it, why after months and months of being forced to read level 2 books I finally snapped. I also don't understand why I chose to take it out on Maria. She, as far as I remember, never bragged about reading. I hated Mrs. Kelley and like Maria. I suppose I knew I would have been in a lot more trouble if I bit a teacher. But why was it so important to me to be recognized as the best reader?

Maria's parents thought they knew. Apparently, she was biracial (which I did not know until 12 years later) and her mother called mine spewing accusations of racism. I had played at this girl's house many times and we had been best friends the previous school year. After this incident, we were never put in the same class again and her mother resigned from Junior League so she did not have to socialize with my mother.

At this time, I went to University of Liggett School, where children do not bite each other. My parents were called in for multiple meetings, culminating in my being sent to a child psychologist. After a battery of tests, it was determined that I was not unwell, but gifted and frustrated. I was dismissed from first grade for the rest of the year - there was only a month left and I spent it in the gifted school first grade program in the public school, to see if it suited me better. It might have, but my parents were yuppies and preferred my being in private school. The next fall Mrs. Kelley was reassigned to the fourth grade.

The funny thing is, I really liked the level 2 books I was reading. They were a series of books about a badger named Francis. I still like them and relate to Francis. Their author, Russell Hoban, also wrote books for adults, and upon rereading them I can see many literary topoi that eluded my first grade self. They were amusing and relevant to my life, especially A Birthday for Francis, in which Francis is jealous of her little sister for getting attention and presents because on her birthday. I made my mother buy them for to have at home. Reading these books was a positive experience I would not have otherwise had.

I suppose it all comes down to the fact that I was the best reader and wanted to be recognized as such. Reading was something adults valued highly. We spent a lot of practicing read, were told that reading was important to our futures, that we could not become adults until we could read. And here I was! A good reader! And Mrs. Kelley didn't care. She praised Maria, who stumbled over words I knew and never asked me to read aloud in class. I was frustrated because I was doing what was important better than anyone else and no one cared. The idea that reading was important was imparted so heavily into me that I was willing to bite a girl over being the best reader in class.

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