While I was in California visiting my former college roommate, Dr. Alice Ruzicka, who is now a neuro-pediatric psychologist, I helped her work with a five-year-old boy. He was being tested to see if he qualified to be in a highly selective private school. And I got to help. She had lost her voice and could only whisper, so where a sentence had to be read, I did the reading. It has been a long time since I was in the classroom teaching, but working with this little boy, put me right back there. I loved it! He tried his best and did very well. When he responded to Alice, he did it in a whisper and to me, it was with his voice. He was just adorable. He reminded me of the six-year-olds I used to work with.
The most important skill taught in first grade is to read. If you learn to read before first grade, that’s great, but if you can’t figure out how to decipher words by the end of first grade, this world brands you a failure. Many of the inmates in prison got into trouble because they couldn’t read. Can’t read—can’t drive. Can’t read—can’t use a computer. Almost any job requires some reading. Not being able to read, really limits job prospects. Not only is reading the most important skill taught in first grade, it’s the most important skill any of us will ever learn. It correlates so closely with success in life.
I’m lucky I ever learned to read. I learned in spite of my mother and the school system. When I was very young, I don’t remember being read to, but I do remember my dad telling great stories.
My mom did not like to see me sitting down with a book; I needed to be doing something, helping her—even at a very young age––four, five, six, seven.
The year I was to turn five in November, my mother took me to school in September to enroll me in Kindergarten, but they turned me away, saying I was too young. So, the next year, she tried again. They put me in first grade—with a whole class of students much better prepared than me. I had never been in a classroom before. My mother had not worked with me, and I had no preschool or Kindergarten. I was at a definite disadvantage. And it was the look/see approach. Fortunately, I was a visual learner and eager to learn. So, I succeeded.
In spite of mom and the school system, I learned to love reading. I would let my sister get in bed with me, and I would read to us under the covers with a flashlight. That way, my parents couldn’t see any light, and we wouldn’t get into trouble.
As I got older, it got even harder to sit down with a book. When we lived in Portland, I went to the basement, which was a great spot, or outside I’d climb the cherry tree and sit on the garage roof. Later, when I was 12 and we had moved to California in the Sierra foothills, I would climb a tree and find a comfy spot to read or perch on a rock––always out of sight of the house. When I was in high school, I would put the textbook covers on non-textbook books. Then when I sat down with a book, my mom thought I was studying. That was acceptable. Growing up, it was never easy to read just for the enjoyment.
The school system made it hard for me to start my education by not allowing me in one year and bumping me ahead the next. And they almost derailed me again when I wanted to continue my education at college. The high school was not much academically speaking—I only had two really good teachers. The advantage was that you could participate in everything if you wanted to. You could be a class and/or student body officer, be homecoming princess, be on the tennis team, be in school plays. My last semester of high school, I was able to walk to the elementary school and help the teachers after the children had gone home. Since I wanted to be a teacher, this was great. By spending an hour there every day, I got to pick their brains and help them prepare materials. It was a valuable experience.
I graduated Valedictorian of my high school class, and I was the only one from my school going to college. Because my high school was lacking in so many ways academically, it was not accredited then. I could only be accepted at the community college in Bakersfield, the nearest large town.
Because I was Valedictorian, I was placed in accelerated classes for just the best students from all the high schools that fed into Bakersfield College. Boy, was I in over my head. I had never heard of a term paper. I had never taken notes in class. It was a very steep learning curve. I had to read every chapter three times. So, I stayed up late most nights just trying to keep up. It was not easy, but I persevered and received top grades. I was on a $200 scholarship that first year and needed to have more scholarships if I wanted to continue, so I had to do well. I made money by working summers in high school and college and that with scholarships, made it possible. My second year, I had two part-time jobs at the college and that helped. My parents only gave me $10 or $20 now and then. If I wanted a college education, it was up to me.
In spite of my mother not encouraging me to read and the school system making it difficult for me in entering first grade and later, in entering college, I did graduate and with honors and with a $500 scholarship to go on to a four-year school. I went to San Jose State for the next two years and graduated with honors there too. i got a job in the district where I had done my student teaching and taught second grade for five years and first grade for 17 years all in the same school. I loved it.
Teaching six-year-olds how to “break the code” and read was one of the highlights of my life. And that little boy I worked with brought it all back.
Note: If anyone reading this has contact with three-, four-, five-, six-, seven-year- olds, read to them if you get the chance. That is the best preparation for learning to read and instilling a love of reading in children. And as they can, have them read back to you. Reading is the most important skill that any of us will ever learn.