I keep coming across passages in books that describe a child’s difficulty with reading, and I am very powerfully drawn to them. Joan Bodger’s description of her children’s enormous store of literary knowledge, there in spite of their inability to read, struck such a chord with me, and Daniel Pennac’s evocation of the transition from being-read-to to reading on one’s own made me ache. Even Helene Hanff’s description of herself as an autodidact in her teens and twenties (and beyond) made me reel in admiration. My attraction to this topic is a puzzle to me, because my own kids love books and, though only one so far can read independently, I do not worry about either their ability or their desire to read.
Still, the story of the false start, the late start is so appealing. In part, I think I am attracted to the narrative drive of struggle leading to success. I also have a soft spot for love stories, especially when the love is bibliophilic. Then there’s the fact that I like to be reminded that not all book love is high-minded, and that the mass market bestsellers are so called because their fans are legion. I know the pleasure of a good read, and I would not presume to deny it to someone who has different tastes than mine.
I realized today, though, that my attraction to the late-to-the-party story is about redemption. I am grasping at my own second chance to be the kind of book lover that I would like to be: the kind who remembers, who can rhyme off lists of great reads, who has an anecdote for each author and book to hand, stories to flesh out the words on the page that I will recommend. As it is, I have an awful memory, I read only a fraction of what I would like to, and I can barely remember the books I have loved, let alone suggest to others what to read.
My blog has become my one, small kernel of hope that I can be a better book lover. Writing here is my second chance at a different relationship to books. Here I have an archive and a daily incentive to push myself to read just that bit more, to edge myself closer to the feeling of having arrived at Enough, at A Job Well Done.
Lorna Crozier was late to reading, as I am late to memory. Being late to reading for Crozier was simply a matter of circumstance. When she was a child, families had to pay for Kindergarten, and her parents could not afford to send her. She did not go to school until grade 1, and when she got there, she could not yet read.
After the first few days of observing her new students, Miss Bee divided our class into four groups of readers: bluebirds, meadowlarks, sparrows and crows. I was placed in the last group…. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the difference. Bluebirds were so special that farmers like my uncles and grandfather built houses for them, nailing the small boxes to the fence posts along the fields. When a bluebird took flight, you’d have sworn a scrap of sky had grown wings, and they and the yellow-throated meadowlarks sang so beautifully it was as if someone had tossed a dipper of well water into the air, each drop a clear, bright sound. Even tough men like my dad and grandfather had to stop in their tracks to listen. Crows couldn’t carry a tune. They cawed and cawed; something stuck in their throats, and they had to cough it up. They flapped through the air like tar shingles torn loose by the wind. On the ground they walked stiffly, as if they’d had polio like Jimmy Coglin up the street and their legs were caged in metal braces. If too many of them gathered in town, the city sent out a man to shoot them.
Sitting with a group of crows in the classroom, stumbling over the words on our reader, was not where I wanted to be. I felt no anger at Miss Bee for her lack of subtlety, only disappointment in myself for being stupid. (11)
That last sentence makes my heart break.
I love the layers of gradually accrued perception here. As a newcomer to the class, she was obviously aware of being placed in the lowest rank, but look at the number of layers of time and place from which she revisits that shame. She is out on the prairie drinking in birdsong and knowing herself excluded from its special status. She is a poet with a lifetime of imagery behind her, and she creates a synesthetic layering of impressions. She is a child observing gender roles and watching them blur as men soften to the sounds of the birds. She is an adult remembering class and gender stratification, remembering the outcasts. She is a woman who is sometimes called “Crow” (short for Crozier) and can bitterly create a string of negative associations. What part of her was forever held back, caged in metal braces?
My last name, Foy, is Irish and it derives from fiach, raven. I love looking at blackbirds, though they may caw and caw and stumble like drunks. I have an affection for all corvids based on that linguistic affiliation, and now I have this wonderful store of dark images to add to my magpie collection.
Photo by Megan Gould