Living the Wonderful Life of Reading


New York.

"How's Fiona?" asked a friend a couple of days after my daughter's sixth birthday.

"Great," I said. "She's a happy kid, great company. Funny, a few weeks ago she was cranky a lot. Whatever you said, she'd come back with, 'I already knew that. So there!' "

"I swear it's the even years," said my friend Amanda Urban, who has a daughter, Kate, eight years old. "Forget the terrible twos; that's all wrong. They drive you crazy in the odd years, three or five, but they're angels at two or four or six."

That's part of it, I'm sure. But I think I've figured out what it really is: Fiona can read!

The excitement around here is palpable. I just went upstairs to rearrange her room because, she informed me, she needed a reading light at her bedside. And she wanted permission to turn it on in the middle of the night.

"One fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish." We are doing Dr. Seuss now. "I cannot hear your call. I cannot hear your call at all. This is not good and I know why. A mouse has cut the wire. Goodbye!"

"Read to me, Daddy," suddenly became, "Listen, sit down, Daddy. I want to read something to you."

There was such frustration, such pain, I now realize, as she was trying to learn to do this wondrous thing. The thing adults and her older brothers and sisters did and talked about all the time was still a mystery to her.

She sat there and pretended she was reading. She would ask you to read the same books to her over and over again, memorizing them and reciting them aloud to everyone, making believe that she was seeing them for the first time.

She would cry or sulk when we insisted she play with certain other children, not realizing she was humiliated to be with other first-graders or second-graders who could do it, who could read.

"S-s-s-s-s" and "b-e-e-e-e" and "k-l-l-l-a-a," Odd little sounds filled the house every afternoon. Phonics. "Is this a hard 'c'? . . . Is this a silent 'e'?"

"I'm going to write a story now, Daddy. How do you spell 'rainbow'?"

Then one day the sounds began to come together. I think it was when the Christmas cards started to arrive. She would come home from school and try to read them to me.

Of course, she had a cultural head start on them, going to parochial schools, Holy Trinity in Washington and St. Andrew's in Sag Harbor, N.Y.; she knew the entire cast of the Nativity.

She knows all the Disney characters, too. Naturally. Whatever a parent thinks of television, it does give kids awesome verbal skills at early ages including words you don't want them to know.

Coming home two years ago after living in France, we briefly experimented with a low-television diet. But we quickly realized that Fiona, who had been going to French schools, could not make American friends without knowing their language and customs, basically the words they heard and the things they saw on the tube every day.

Yesterday she came into my office and said that she thought we should all try to be careful if we wanted to look at one of her books, "Good night, Moon." ("Good night, room. Good night, bears. Good night, chairs. Good night, light. Good night, moon.")

"It was my first book," she said. So it was. "It's sort of an antique. Valuable."

Today she asked when she could get a computer like her mommy's and her daddy's. "I need it," she said, "to write my own books."

Any time, kid. My spirit soars.

It is a gift to watch this.

I think the town should build a statue of Mrs. Crowley, the first-grade teacher at St. Andrew's.

And I mourn the fact that other people's children are growing up in the richest country the world has ever known, my country, and somehow are not learning these wonderful things.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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