Wednesday, February 6, 2013

First Love

When I was little, my mom used to read to me at night.  Teeth brushed, pjs on, I’d nestle in, sitting up under the covers, leaning against pillows.  She’d sit next to me on my bed holding the left side of the book, and I’d hold the right.  When she paused, I knew it was time to turn the page.

Mother and Child Reading (Frederick Warren Freer, ca. 1896)

One night, when I was four, she sat next to me as usual, but this time I began to read to her.  She said it was like that:  suddenly, I was reading.  She thought maybe my older sister taught me.  Or that I picked it up by osmosis as she read to me each night.

I don't remember being suddenly able to read—nor do I remember not knowing how to read.  I do recall trying to sound out words I didn’t recognize.  I have a vivid memory of staring at all the board games stacked at the top of my parents’ closet trying to sound out a very long word printed in bold red:  “Mo-no.  Po-ly.” 

My out-of-the-blue literacy delighted my mom.  She loved books, and she believed in the power of an education.  She took my sister and me to the library every week, where we could choose whatever books we wanted to check out.  It was miraculous being able to take all those books home.  The heavy stacks fatigued my arms on the way out to the car and impressed dents in my hands and forearms.  Those books had a musty smell that somehow made me feel like they held magic spells.  I remember wondering how all those words and pictures got put onto the paper, how the thick paper used for the covers was made, and how someone devised a story that made me want to turn the page. 

At age three, I started preschool.  This was the early 1960s when free preschools were proliferating all over the nation.  I remember nap time on the floor with a scratchy wool blanket (like the dark grey Navy blankets of my dad’s from the mysterious pre-me years he was a sailor).  I remember the teacher handing me a graham cracker, and wishing for two—so I broke it in half along the seam and forced myself to eat more slowly than I wanted to.  I didn’t like having no more graham cracker while other kids were still crunching away.  

popsicle art
I remember aromatic, chunky paste and how unwieldy certain art projects could be, especially ones involving popsicle sticks, construction paper, and glitter.  I always rushed through those and other tasks so I could go over to the bookshelves and grab some books or a fat crayon and sturdy paper.  I’d print out words, using the help of the alphabet displayed over the blackboard.

before computers
In third grade, my teacher—Mrs. Broadwell—wrote a six-page report card to my parents, rhapsodizing about how one day I was sure to be a writer.  I was so proud to bring home such a long report card, written in Mrs. Broadwell’s  loopy cursive, redolent of the acrid smell of ditto ink.  In the living room, my mom read it aloud to my dad.  They both expressed approval of me as such a good student.  But I could tell Mrs. Broadwell’s passion was a little embarrassing for my mom.  With a half-smile, she said, “Well, I could certainly imagine her being able to say the same thing in fewer pages.”  Dad laughed.  Deep down, I was shocked.  Why did my parents think they had the authority to question or make fun of a teacher?

I adored Mrs. Broadwell.  Although at first, I’d been scared of her.  She was a large woman—as “broad as a well.”  With her patterned dresses and big dark hairdo, she vaguely reminded me of an imposing couch, or maybe a rhinoceros.  The first day of class, she held up a red apple for us to see.  She then proceeded to twist it until it broke in half, like an apple cut by a knife.

Yes, bare-handed.

When we came in from recess, she’d inspect our ears and neck for dirt.  The offending children—almost always boys—she’d scrub with such vigour that their skin would turn red.  I had a crush on Joey, one boy who cowered under Mrs. Broadwell’s bruising washcloth at least once a week.  He had freckles and ears that stuck out (thus probably good dirt-catchers).  He would pull out his teeth before they were loose enough so that he’d have to hold a paper towel up to his mouth all day to stop the bleeding.  I got a little zip up my body every time I’d sit next to him, and the attraction made no sense at all.  Especially since he’d really bug me during reading time because he’d squirm or bang his legs against his desk until Mrs. Broadwell would bark out his name.  

I loved when Mrs. Broadwell would read to us.  She’d perch on a stool next to her desk in front of the class.  Her thighs spread out on the round seat, hitching her skirt up enough so that we could see a hint of girdle.  When she read, the story lived in my head like a movie.  She was always done too soon.

One day she wrote this word on the board:


Just that single word.  Then she said to us, “What do you notice about this word?”
magic words

We looked at the word.  We looked at her.  She stood there, her dress like a brocade sofa cover.  No one said anything.

“Lisa,” she said to a girl in the front row, “spell ‘level’ for us.”

As Lisa said L-E-V-E-L, Mrs. Broadwell tapped each letter with her ruler.

“Now, Nancy, spell it backwards.”

As Nancy did, it dawned on all of us:  This word was spelled the same forward as backward!

“Can you think of any other words that are spelled the same forward and backward?” asked Mrs. Broadwell.

“Mom!”  shouted someone.  She wrote it on the board.  “Dad!”  She wrote that.  Students shouted out a few more easy ones:  “Eye.”  “Bob.”  “Gag.”  “Pep.”  “Tot.”

Then she wrote on the board with the flair of squeaky chalk:  


I had to spell it backward in my mind to make sure it was right.  All the straight “l’s” in level made that one more obvious.  But yes!  “Racecar” was the same each direction.  I already knew words were amazing.  I loved the sound of certain words even if I didn’t know or care about the meaning.  Or sometimes the word sounded like its meaning:  “luscious,” “precious,” “invisible.”  “beautiful.”  But words spelled the same forward and backward?  This opened up a whole new world of possibilities.

Mrs. Broadwell wasn’t done.  Next she wrote:  

A man, a plan, a canal—Panama.  

It took our eyes a moment.  A chirp emanated throughout the desk rows:  Wow!  A whole SENTENCE could be a palindrome.

She still wasn’t finished:

Don’t nod.

Do geese see God?

Never odd or even.

A thrill trilled from my toes up my back, tickling my skin all over.  A rush that felt like the sensation of sitting next to Joey.  Desire.  Bodies and language.  Even at age eight, I felt the possibilities sing.

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