When I was in 3rd grade—maybe 4th?—my teacher called my mother in to tell her I was failing reading. My memory of this moment is fits and spurts: I remember mom and I sitting in little-kid desks across from the teacher in her ginormous teacher-desk. I remember being scared I was in trouble; your mom gets called in, that means you screwed up, right? I remember the classroom was on the 2nd floor, with windows overlooking the playground, and there were seesaws shaped like sea animals. My mom has since filled in the blanks for much of what happened: apparently, there were these workbooks we were supposed to read, with stories about frogs and cats and stuff, and we had to fill out multiple choice worksheets: A. the frog is happy B. the frog is sad C. the frog is thinking, etc. My teacher showed my mother my worksheets; all the multiple choice questions were wrong, big red X’s through the A’s and B’s and C’s.
I do remember this next part: my mother looked at me and smiled. What my teacher didn’t know was that my mom has a Master’s in early childhood education and was then designing a K-5 Gifted and Talented program for Washtenaw County. You want to hear a thing or two about kids and reading? Take my mom out for a beer—but more important than that? I was her kid. You don’t need a Master’s degree to be an expert in your own eight-year-old. I remember she held up the workbook with the frog story and asked, “Megan. Did you read this?” I shook my head no. Mom tapped the stack of workbooks on the teacher’s desk, a semester’s worth of stories about frogs, and asked, “Did you read any of these?” Again, I shook my head. “What were you reading instead?” she asked, and I went to my desk, got the dogeared copy of Little Women, and brought it back to my mother, who thumbed through its pages—somewhere around 400, depending on your edition—and asked me to tell her about it. I remember my fear of the teacher, the classroom, the workbooks—all of it fell away as I told my mom about how Jo didn’t want to get married, how the girls all helped that family at Christmas, how Beth died (to this day, that scene makes me cry). I loved that book, especially ‘cause it was about sisters, and I wanted sisters—in retrospect the March girls kind of were my sisters. I profoundly believe in the relationships we have with fictional characters; what they teach us, how they help us grow and see the world and see ourselves—anyhow. I remember my mother patting me on the shoulder. Then she turned and, very slowly, very purposefully, gave my teacher a look. I will never forget that look for as long as I live. It held fury and pride and a rapidly brewing thunderstorm of words. Heavy words. Dangerous ones. Over the years, I’ve been grateful that—no matter how much stupid shit I pulled—my mother never looked at me with that look, and it wasn’t until I became a parent myself that I truly understood its magnitude.
Three decades later, as an educator myself, I think about that teacher making such a snap judgement about my reading ability. Her assessment could have changed my life completely; at worst, I could’ve been held back, and at—not best; no, a different kind of worst—I was being labeled: Can’t Read. Granted, labels can be helpful, offering much-needed support for a myrid of challenges kids are up against, but they also have a lasting impact on a kid’s psyche and should be treated with care. Can I tell you how many college students come to my classes with horror stories of What Teachers Told Them? You can’t read, you can’t write, you’re dumb, you’re bad, and then teachers tell parents and sometimes parents believe it because teachers are the experts, right? And the parents, they’re tired, overworked—believe me, I’m a parent, I know tired and overworked, but I’m also a teacher, I know tired and overstuffed classrooms, I know too many students and too much student work, I know too many hours and not enough to pay my mortgage and how do you manage it all? Do you take shortcuts? And what might those shortcuts do to the student in the long run? What I’m trying to say here is that my teacher screwed up, yes, but to say this is entirely her fault is a whole other systematic problem that needs to be addressed. It’s not as easy as “Some teachers are good and some are bad and let’s make these oversimplified judgements by testing students on reading comprehension when maybe, just maybe, kids are filling out those multiple choice questions without even reading about the fucking frog!”
Imagine where my life might have gone had my mother not been the woman she is—my advocate, my watchdog, my parent, and FYI, I’d like to include the idea of “significant adult” into this diatribe here, ‘cause I’ve known many awesome kids raised by aunts or grandparents or foster parents or friends or a million other amazing, selfless people who want to make this world a better place for their kid and everyone’s kids and to all of you, I say Thank You.
To my mom, I say Thank You. I write stories because I love reading, and I love reading because my mother put books in my hands—
(lots of books, many of which are on the banned books list, about which I could write a whole other blog post but this very smart woman, M. Molly Backes, says everything I want to very eloquently here).
—my mother put books in my hands, and read them with me, and asked me what I thought about them, and listened as I told her, and gave me other books to read based on what I told her, for years she did this, she still does this—so imagine, after all of that, being told by some teacher who barely knew me that I couldn’t read? I’m not a religious person, but Lord Almighty! What would you have done, sitting in that little-kid desk as someone told you something untrue about your very own child?
My mom is a dignified lady. I try very hard to follow her example, and more often than not, I fail. I tend to turn red, fly off the handle, let the words out of my mouth before thinking them through. Over the years, I’ve learned that this approach doesn’t do anyone any good, and there’ve been many times when, on the edge of exploding all over the place, I’ve summoned up the memory of my mother that day. She smoothed her skirt over her knees. She smiled. Then she said, “As you can see, my daughter can read just fine.” My teacher must have said something here. Or maybe she just took off her foot and stuck it in her mouth? I don’t remember. What I do remember is my mother calmly explaining, in a voice that offered no room for discussion, a voice not unlike the Book of Genesis, that this teacher would no longer have anything to do with my English education. I would come to class every day and do math and science and social studies with everyone else, but when the rest of the class did their reading and their workbooks, I would be doing assignments that she—my mother—would send to school. Then she—my mother—would grade those assignments and she—my mother—would share that grade with her—the teacher—and if there were any questions about all of this, perhaps they should set up an appointment with the Superintendent of Schools?
My mother is a badass.
For the rest of the year, when everyone else would read about frogs and fill out their multiple choice, I would read the books my mother gave me: Charlotte’s Web; The Great Gilly Hopkins; Bridge to Terabithia; Where the Red Fern Grows; Ramona Quimby; A Wrinkle in Time; Jennifer, Hecate, MacBeth, William McKinely and Me, Elizabeth; The Egypt Game; A Cricket in Times Square; Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIHM; Jacob Two-two and the Hooded Fang; The Pushcart War; Island of the Blue Dolphins; and on and on. I had lots of spiral-bound notebooks full of questions, not multiple choice questions but questions, ones I had to think through and explain, ones that brought me to new questions that I had to think through, explain, and often talk about with my mom and dad and, look at that! Now we’re talking about the world! And suddenly reading means this whole other thing to me: I’m not just watching the characters of Karana and Rontu and Rontu-Aru running around on the island of blue dolphins, I’m imagining myself there with them. I’m seeing it all from their point of view, and for a little girl growing up in small-town Southeast Michigan, seeing the world through the eyes of a little girl growing up in Ghalas-at on San Nicolas Island was a gift.
What a profound introduction to literature! I remember reading about Karana and wondering why things she does after her father and brother die, things like hunting and fishing , were traditionally only tasks for men. My dad took me hunting and fishing, and I was a girl! I look back and laugh at this childhood outrage, but I’m grateful for it, too. There I am, eight years old, starting to think over some pretty fucking big truths. Here’s another truth: I didn’t know what foster care was, or that some children didn’t have parents, until I read The Great Gilly Hopkins. The kind of kid I was back then lived in a sort of bubble: your own home and neighborhood and school. I remember that book changing the way I thought about gratitude and survival and perseverence and starting a dialogue about privilege that I’m still, to this day, trying to work through and learn about. I’ve had that experience with a lot of books over the past twenty years—through reading, I learn about points of view that are different than my own. It starts the dialogue. It opens my eyes to things I haven’t before seen. It inspires me to share this same gift to others. That’s why I write. That’s why I teach writing. And all of this started back in that 3rd—or was it 4th?—grade classroom.
It all started with my mom.