Writes of Passage

When I look back on my childhood, my memories are broken up into two distinct eras — preliterate and literate. What I remember most about my preliterate life was wanting to read. Learning to read was like discovering the master key to the mysteries of the universe. No longer at the mercy of my parents (who were no doubt as relieved as I that they were no longer my personal encyclopedias), I was an insatiable consumer of fiction, biography, science textbooks, poems, magazines, newspapers, and the entire AMA Family Medical Guide (or as I liked to call it, the hypochondriac manual).

Learning to write went hand in hand with learning to read. I used words to label my pretend anatomy charts at age 5, to poke lighthearted fun at Reader’s Digest in junior high with my “Melodrama in Real Life” series and, later, to earn an impressive $10 an hour as a rookie newspaper reporter (age being no indicator of wisdom, this was what I chose to do with my expensive 4-year private-university education).

Having had this 28-year love affair with the written word, I’ve been anticipating the day my own children could share the joy of reading. When I held a 6-week-old Maddux in my lap and opened the pages of “Busy Little Mouse” for the first time, I imagined a time when she’d enjoy books on her own. While she teethed on her well-worn copy “I Love My Mommy” at 10 months, I told myself she was merely practicing for her future as a voracious reader.

But as much as she is her mother’s daughter in many ways (how many preschoolers can accurately summarize the workings of the circulatory, respiratory and digestive systems?), she also is her own person. And that person would rather be read a story than to read one, and would rather “just figure it out” than look it up in a book.

So getting Maddux to spend any more than a few minutes working on her phonics has been — well, like getting me to work on my math (something Maddux actually enjoys a lot). But lately, it’s been occurring to her that reading might come in handy in certain real-life scenarios, whether it be finding the price of a particular princess playset, figuring out the settings on a blow-dryer or asking Daddy via instant message what we’re having for dinner. (Also, it’d be nice not to have to rely on Mommy to provide spellings of people’s names when writing royal-ball invitations.)

Of late, she’s been sounding things out and connecting the sounds the letters make with the noises she hears in words. With a little prompting, she can finally read some of the easier words in her picture books. And tonight, in the bathtub, something finally clicked.

Maddux was playing with her foam letters and happened across a “J,” which we’ve established many times is for “James.”

“I’m going to spell ‘James,’ Mommy,” she announced. “What comes after ‘J’?”

Being a lazy mom, I replied with a typical lazy-mom answer. “What do you think comes after ‘J’? Sound it out.”

“Jjjuh. Ayy…” she began, using the word-building techniques her school and I have been using.

“So, what letter makes that sound?” I prompted.

“A!” Maddux squeaked excitedly, fishing around in the bubbles for that vowel.

She sounded out “Mmm” and followed it with “Zzz,” and thus was her first-ever word spelled on the wall of our bathtub. Technically, “Jamz” is not a word or a name, but it’s an appropriate phonetic spelling of “James,” so we’re counting it. She then spelled “Dad” with ease.

I have no idea what Maddux plans to do with her new skill — whether she’ll instantly begin devouring material way above grade level, or whether she plans on reading only when she can’t find someone to do it for her. Part of me suspects that she began reading because James has begun trying to sound out letters recently and Mads didn’t want her baby brother catching up with her.

But no matter what she does with it, Maddux’ future is here. She’s got the key to the entire world — literacy — right within her grasp. Soon she’ll be able to read herself stories, to select her own videos in Media Center, and even to discover that restaurant menus contain more options than just the healthy ones Mommy and Daddy offer up as suggestions (thank goodness ‘chocolate’ is such a long word).

Learning to read may not be such a huge milestone in everyone else’s lives, but it was the big milestone in my childhood. Books were my entertainment and my primary source of information in a pre-Internet world. The public library was an adventure, and at the same time, a home away from home.

I hope literacy will be important to my little girl as well. I look forward to sharing the old childhood classics, along with all the new books we find in the Scholastic catalogs she brings home from preschool. At the very least, I am excited — as I’m sure my parents were when I was small — at the prospect of no longer serving as my daughter’s on-demand encyclopedia.

So proud of her work, she insisted on a picture!

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