How I fell in love ... with words
... a love lasting a lifetime
from Carol Priestley
“Can you remember the exact day when the letters on the page of a book made sense to you?” This question was posed to me by my friend, Alice. Her eyes looked keen for a ‘storytelling’. I told I her didn’t recall the exact day, but I did remember when I fell in love with reading. It was shortly after I met my third grade teacher, Miss Korn at the Roosevelt Elementary School in Melrose.
The year is 1958. I am sitting proudly at a new desk in the addition built onto the existing school to house all of us ‘baby boomers’. Everything around me is bright and shiny. The bathrooms aren’t called ‘water closets’ anymore and they aren’t located in the bowels of the school basement. I feel a sense of respect for my new surroundings. I know I will try my best in this new school.
Miss Korn is a tall woman who moves about the classroom without seeming to make a footfall. She taps us gently on the shoulder when she sees we are fussing over our ‘sums’ and bends down to quietly whisper her advice. She also never fails to whisper, “Good job,” when she sees we have done a task correctly. She makes the classroom feel like both a sacred and friendly place in which to learn.
Just about the time I thought I would never be able to divide another ‘pie’ into quarters, the milk and cookies arrive. Miss Korn dives into them, like the rest of us. This was a ‘chocolate chip cookie day’. I know for sure it wasn’t a ‘gingersnap day’ because my stomach would have growled while Miss Korn introduced us to the poet, Eugene Fields, after morning recess.
Miss Korn is handing out mimeographed copies to each student. When I get my copy, I am mesmerized by the depiction of a calico cat and a gingham dog posed on a fireplace mantelpiece. I’d know them anywhere. They are the characters from my mom’s favorite poem, “The Duel”. I wait until all the papers are distributed to raise my hand. I tell Miss Korn I know this poem. She asks me if I would like to read it out loud to the class.
I am not a good reader. If the highest reading group was named ‘the butterflies’ then I would be in the ‘chrysalis’ group, but I know this poem by heart. I stand beside my desk and recite it just like my mom. Miss Korn has tears in her eyes. I’m supposing she thinks it’s a sad story too. When I finish she flashes me a smile that says, “Well done”.
I sit down at my desk knowing something wonderful has just happened. Miss Korn is thanking me for my recitation even though I never read a word from the page. There are other poems by Eugene Field written on the pages she has handed out. They are ones I have never heard before now. One by one the students recite a few lines each of “The Sugarplum Tree” and “The Tin Soldier”. I am transported away until the bell rings at 2:50 pm, signaling the end of the school day.
Miss Korn asks to speak to me after class. She asks me where I learned to read “The Duel”. I tell her I couldn’t read it, but my mom read it to me so many times, I remembered it. I confess I’m not a good reader. She says now that I had all the words of this poem already in my mind, I would be able to make sense of the letters. She smiles as she hands me a book that contains these poems and tells me I can take it home to study. I receive with it the awe of a sacred trust. I don’t think I am breathing because suddenly I am light-headed. I know I am grinning and nodding like a fool. I don’t even remember thanking her, but I can remember running all the way home.
Over the next few months as I studied this book, I began to soar past ‘the butterflies’ in airplanes, and by the end of the school year, in space rockets. Miss Korn knew the secret to helping children to become better readers was to provide them with books they would love to read. The formula is simple, but the magic it works is breathtaking to witness. The phenomenon that Miss Korn created this day doesn’t end with me. This love of books spread through me and many others like the waves created by a pebble tossed into a pool. It affected so many people over these next fifty years that we simply would have no way to measure it.
Alice is smiling. She holds a book in her lap. I know she is patiently waiting to share it with me. When she knows I’ve finally answered her question, she holds the book up and asks, “Have you read this one?”
Once you fall in love with reading, the quest for knowledge is limitless. If you find another who shares your ideals, the adventure will never seem to end.
July 3, 2008