School started this week; with students split between virtual and in-person teaching, economic disparity and the limitation of resources for students in the lower socio-economic strata has been thrust into sharp relief. Kids without high speed internet, quick pay Amazon options, or college-educated parents are in a pickle.
I was one of those kids, back in the 1970s, before high speed internet. But the plight was the same. Disparity is a constant, after all.
We didn’t keep books in my house. My parents didn’t read much themselves, and they definitely didn’t read to me. My literacy was fostered by the captions on coloring book pages, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company. Then I discovered the library at school. Ramona Quimby became my best friend in the years when my unbathed, scraggly self didn’t have pals. Beezus was my big sister, Mr. and Mrs. Quimby my parents. Though I never would have dreamed to indulge the sass that lay buried under my compliant surface, it was there. Every time Ramona mouthed off or struggled with her woolen stockings, I loved her. The days at school when we received our Scholastic book order forms were highlights that thrilled me; on newsprint paper was a four-page brochure of paperback books we could order. I saved up, or sometimes my dad had a little spare change, and I proudly turned in my order, anticipating the day a box of books would be delivered to the teacher and I’d have something new and wonderful: with a slick, untouched book cover that would open upon magical words and worlds, I could inhabit every wish I had ever made. Even in the seven years I taught elementary school, I kept up these book orders, bookworm-y teachers love getting new books just as much as bookworm-y kids.
I learned that our town had a portable Book Mobile, a converted bright blue school bus, it was an extension of the town’s public library and traveled to all the elementary schools in the afternoons so that kids who didn’t have transportation to the library could access its wonder. A Wrinkle in Time never had a more devoted follower. I made Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit my own fairy godmothers, Charles Wallace my brother. I imagined visiting other dimensions by tesseract. I wondered what a Bunsen burner was and how a mom could be a scientist.
I saved my pennies for the book fair and bought a graphic novel of Dracula. My maternal grandmother took me to the library when I visited her in New Mexico or, later, at their lake house in Brownwood, Texas, and I checked out Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl over and over. It was a summer touchstone, I only read it when visiting my grandma. My paternal grandmother had Encyclopedia Brown books in the den, and I tucked in on the bright orange mid-century linen couch and read when it got too hot to play in the west Texas sun. I wept every time that Old Dan and Little Ann perished at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.
Once my teachers noticed my voracious appetite for books and looked at my grades in spelling, they realized I could be a contender in the Scripps spelling bee, it’s the one that you still see on television. Now I had a booklet of words to study and learn! I cloistered myself in my pretty yellow room, copying the words over and over with a pencil or recording them in the cassette player my dad had bought as an Amway tool. I carried my booklet with me everywhere, and begged people to quiz me over words.
At the bee, as each word was called, I repeated it, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and visualized the page. Here was the miracle of my spelling strategy: I could see each page, find the word’s location on it, and, using my finger to trace the letters as my right hand hung by my side, spell it perfectly. I spelled with confidence, emphasizing each final letter with a declarative tone that left no room for doubt. I wasn’t smug, I just knew. I trusted my own voice and my own gift. The youngest girl in the competition, I watched competitor after competitor leave the stage and take a seat at cafeteria tables. Then, a snag. A problem. A hitch. The pronouncer called out the word “forte,” pronouncing it “fort-ay.” This was not a word that had ever been called to us in our after school practices with Mrs. Goodwin. My brain searched for such a thing on the F page that existed in my memory, but came up with nothing. I asked for both definition and sentence, neither helped. I relied on my phonics comprehension, took a deep breath, and spelled the word phonetically: f-o-r-t-a-y? Ending my spelling on an upward inflection alerted everyone in the room that I was unsure. I waited anxiously, but not for long. They rang that stupid little silver bell. Ding! Neither my homeroom teacher, who had been the coach at school, nor the pronouncers at the table caught on to the fact that the word has multiple pronunciations and meanings, and so one was giving me “a person’s strong suit” and the other was giving me “the musical term meaning to get louder” along with both pronunciations. I was thoroughly lost. When I sat down, I spelled every word to myself, furiously and correctly, for the rest of the contest.
You never forget your first spelling bee loss.
As I continued up grade levels, I kept spelling, and I kept winning. When I won the eighth grade bee, and thus the right to move on to the district level competition, the Jackson Middle School newspaper sent a boy to interview me, which he did before the tardy bell rang in English class. We were surrounded by other students, who were listening attentively:
“Why do you think you’re so good?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just have a knack for it.”
He didn’t recognize the word. He did not have the vocabulary.
“A knack? What’s that? Are you trying to show us how smart you are? How much smarter than all of us?” He laughed. Others laughed. I was both embarrassed and indignant. Why should I have to pretend I didn’t know these words? Why should I have to dumb down my vocabulary, which was extensive, to meet the lower denominator? I learned to be more discreet about my intelligence that day. I didn’t stifle it, my hunger for words was too powerful to ever be curbed, they were the flame that fueled every step, every decision I would ever make. Words, books, stories, they were a candle in the dim shadows.
I kept competing, and winning, in spelling all the way through high school. I even have two adult spelling bee trophies that I treasure. I admit that I mentally correct spelling on social media, and the office has me proof everything.
Studies indicate a direct correlation between literacy and mental health. Being equipped to succeed in reading or given the opportunity to develop empathy through identification with a character helps kids to move through the world in emotionally healthy ways. Books and words saved me when I was a struggling kid. They still do, and all of us who are fortunate enough to have easy access to knowledge and its delivery systems owe it to our fellow humans to find ways to share the light.
So, what’s your favorite book?
If you’re interested in supporting literacy, here’s a link to the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation.