I learned to read in the quiet of an upstairs bedroom in our house in Duluth, the room where my little brothers slept side-by-side in cribs, where nobody would think to look for me. I was 3 years old, and I did not recognize the words on the page by looking at them, but had to work at them, sounding them out, saying them aloud. At some point they became not just letters or sounds, but actual words with meaning, words connected to other words, words that said something, told a story, and I picked up speed and read and read and read, chattering away out loud.
My big sister finally hollered from down the hall, “Shut up! You’re driving me crazy!” but my mother came to my defense: “Leave her alone; she’s reading!” Magical words that came to define my childhood.
I knew the rules: Do not follow the text with your finger. That would show me to be an amateur; also, it would slow me down. Sitting on the floor, book propped against my knees, back against the wall, I read until my voice was hoarse. At some point I realized I could manage it silently, but out loud was easier and had the added benefit of annoying my sister.
Reading to the class
On the first day of kindergarten, Mrs. Pedersen told us that we each needed to bring in 50 cents to pay for the mats we napped on at midmorning. I was the seventh Hertzel child, and we had a bunch of these mats rolled up in our basement. My mother wanted me to let Mrs. Pedersen know that we didn’t need another one. But how? I was shy, terrified of speaking to adults.
So I waited until my teacher stepped away from her desk.
I slipped over and found a pencil and paper, and I printed, “I have a mat at home,” and left the note for her to find.
Later that day Mrs. Pedersen called the class together. We sat in a circle on the floor and stared up at her as she held up a piece of paper. I recognized my note, and I felt my face grow hot.
“Someone left me a note,” she began, and I did not dare move. “Would you like to let me know who wrote this?” I waited a few seconds before slowly raising my hand no higher than my shoulder. The guilt was crushing, even though I didn’t know what I had done that was wrong. Using her pencil? Being in possession of a mat?
She looked at me oddly and said, “Do you know how to read?” and I nodded, miserable. Didn’t everyone?
Mrs. Pedersen kept an eye on me after that. There was a library in the back of the kindergarten room, a little nook with spindle-back chairs and low shelves of books, and most days she came back there and gently took a book out of my hands and urged me to go do something else — choose an instrument from the music box, or take part in one of the group games.
I followed her into the middle of the room, looking back longingly at that sweet corner. Nobody else ever went back there; nobody else seemed interested in books. I didn’t understand why I had to keep leaving.
One morning, Mrs. Pedersen was called to the office for a phone call, and she asked me to read to the class while she was gone. I grabbed the book she had taken away from me the day before, only half read. It was a collection of Ukrainian stories, and I had been in the middle of “The Spiders’ Christmas Tree.” I would read that to the class, and thus find out how the story ended.
The other children sat on the floor, and I perched on the teacher’s big chair and opened the book. In the story, spiders crept into a poor family’s home and spun their webs all over the Christmas tree — they were trying to make it beautiful, but instead they ruined it. I needed to know what happened. How would Christmas be saved?
Mrs. Pedersen returned before I was done, and I stopped and looked up. She paused in the doorway and nodded at me to continue. She and the children listened as I read aloud, all of us waiting to find out what happened in the end.
And lo and behold, a fairy came, and with her wand she turned all of the sticky gray spider webs to pure gold.
How did you learn to read? Do you remember? Write me at email@example.com and I’ll share your stories on a future Sunday.
Laurie Hertzel is the Star Tribune senior editor for books. On Twitter: @StribBooks. On Facebook: facebook.com/startribunebooks. A version of this essay ran in tatsharobertson.com/the-ordinary-genius-project/readers