Guest Post: Reading Readiness in the Fifties

Book cover for Je Taimerai Toujours.

Hello everyone! Eva here. When Katje sent me her story of how she came to be a reader, I responded with this. She asked if I wanted it to be my inaugural guest post here on Barefoot in Langley, and of course I said yes!

Book cover for Je Taimerai Toujours.Isn’t it funny, what we forget and remember? I had forgotten about Danny and the Dinosaur until Katje reminded me. I do remember how much she loved bedtime stories, especially Je t’Aimerais Toujours, which I sang to her.

I wasn’t so lucky. My father was an ex-teacher with quirky ideas. My mother was an obedient wife. I did not know this for about four decades, but he forbade my mother to teach me to read, so that I would not feel out of place with my fellow students when finally, at age six, I would be allowed to go to school. Like Katje, I was a child with early reading readiness. For some kids, that doesn’t happen until age seven but for us it came early. Unhappily for me, the doors to reading remained shut for three or four interminable years.

There weren’t many children’s books in the Fifties. My mother did not read to me before bed. Mornings, I would ask for a pencil and scribbler and invent writing for myself, wondering what the key to reading looked like. On weekends, when the color funnies came, I would sit with arms fixed wide, fingers clutching the edges of the storied pages, trying to break the code until my head ached. Surely there was a story attached to those pictures which would give me a clue!

When I was five, my mother was asked to translate for a Dutch immigrant family whose children needed to be enrolled in Donald Ross School, Edmonton. My best friend, Jean-Charles, was entering school too and I was green with jealousy. As my mother put my little sister into the stroller, I begged her, “Please, Mam, ask if I can go to school, too!” I want to believe she promised, but probably not. Off we trudged, the immigrant lot of us, the “Dirty DPs” (Displaced Persons). The principal’s desk came up to my nose and he looked enormous, hulking on its far side. As I heard the conversation drawing to a close, I jiggled my mother’s arm and whispered, “Ask him! Please!” Shame-faced, my mother related my outrageous request.

“How old is she?” he barked.

“She was five in June,” my mother quavered.

“No!” It was the first rejection of my life.

When Jean-Charles came home from his first days of school, I pumped him. “What happened? Can you read now? What did you learn?”

He shrugged. Nothing happened. He didn’t learn anything. He couldn’t pass anything on to me about reading. He didn’t tell me, but much later I realized that my best friend must have been labeled as one of the dummies. Of course. He was Metis, although I knew nothing of such artificial barriers to friendship or learning at the time.

What a painful year that was! I searched for my Rosetta Stone non-stop, my father never realizing how I suffered. Decades later, after my father’s death, my mother apologized. “In those days,” she said, “wives obeyed their husbands. I’m sorry.”

Imagine my excitement as the first day of Grade One approached! (In those days, hardly any child went to kindergarten–which so soon after the War was still vaguely suspect because of its German name–and no one had heard of day care.) I expected to learn to read on Day One! I would come home with the key to my life clutched in my grubby hand!

We six-year-olds were seated alphabetically that first day. Each of us was asked to recite the alphabet and count to 100. By my turn, the teacher had tired and did not stop me until number 276. There was only one child with a last name father back in the alphabet than mine. When that one finished, I thought, Now we will learn to read!

Miss Irwin handed out pages to each of us. On the page was the shape of a feather. We were given crayons and instructed to color it, any shade we liked. We would do this each day of the school year. By the end of the year, we each would sport an Indian head-dress for colorful feathers, down to the floor.

There was something icky about this irksome daily activity, something later called cultural appropriation. Anyway, I hated coloring. Worst of all, because of that damned feather, that day I had to go home without knowing how to read!

This was not my last disappointment with the Canadian educational system but it was the most acute.

About six weeks later, I did know how to read. Is that all there is to it? I thought. By that time the class had been regrouped–streamed–into bright, average, and hopeless, a.k.a. known as Chipmunks, Squirrels and Rabbits. Dimly I understood that my best friend had suffered the fate of a Rabbit. Our destinies had parted ways.

Books let me fly. I read Dickens at eight. As my daughter relates, I quickly ran out of kids’ books–there were so few then, compared to the glorious tides of books today–and snitched my mother’s library card (with her blessing) to borrow books “for my mother” from the local library, the smell and feel of which still occupies a room in my mind.

I wrote my first novel at ten or eleven. Flying Hooves. My grandfather, in the Netherlands, took pride n translating it into Dutch. It was published as a serial in the local paper in the city where, less than a decade earlier, a curly-haired tot and her parents had said a cheerful goodbye to their homeland to try their luck in Canada.

I forgot about being a novelist for almost half a century, but reading never failed me in those tumultuous years. A good novel is always at my bedside and a brief read with morning tea is the best preparation for the day’s tumult. Electronic screens can never supplant the sustained comfort and excitement of the printed word to see me through the day.

Reading makes world citizens of the little animals we call our children, offers us limitless escape from reality, and fashions a comfortable resting spot from which to direct our final battles. If we want our species to persist, we must make reading a priority. Get kids to read–anything! For without reading, humans are incommunicado and will surely perish. Without writing and reading, the story of humanity will never be fully told.


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