Vivid memories of 1st word read Reading: Memories of learning to read fall into two camps. Many can recall the exact moment or place the epiphany happened; others are not so precise in their recollections but can recall much about the process.


LEARNING TO read is life-changing. It's epiphany.

We discovered this last week in reporting for a column on the renewed interest in Dick and Jane readers.

A. Karen Blair, the Towson State University professor we interviewed about Dick and Jane, knew what we would discover and predicted it before we began talking to people in Catonsville, downtown Baltimore and Essex.

"Learning to read," said Blair, "is a wonderful and in many ways mysterious process, and many people remember it the way they remember where they were when they heard about Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination."

A Catonsville florist paused to remember her first real book and her first-grade teacher. So did a high school English teacher in Essex. The governor of Maryland took time from a hellish schedule to talk about his earliest reading experiences in Florida.

The state superintendent of schools said "horse" was among the first words she could read. For two weeks, said Nancy S. Grasmick, she played the part of a horse, asking her parents to place her meals on the floor.

"Imagine me galloping around the house on all fours pretending my dinner was oats. I was so excited!" said Grasmick, who grew up in Baltimore and, with the help of her grandmother, learned to read before she began formal schooling. (There were no kindergartens.)

Grasmick and Gov. Parris N. Glendening, who grew up in poor circumstances in Hialeah, Fla., represent the two camps of reading autobiography.

Grasmick and many others recall the first word they could read -- "red," in the superintendent's case -- and the time and place of that stunning discovery. Those in Glendening's reading camp (including Education Beat) can't remember the moment or the place but can recall much about learning to read.

In one of the governor's earliest memories, his name was drawn from a barrel containing the names of pupils who had done well in reading during the school year. "The prize," he said, "was a case of 144 chocolate-covered marshmallows. Since I came from a family with six children, I was a hero for a week."

(Glendening also remembered being teased unmercifully after his male classmates discovered he was reading science fiction in Ladies Home Journal as a high school freshman. "My male ego was totally shattered," he said.)

Karl Kirby Pence, president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, is in the Grasmick camp. "The word was 'look,' " he said. "The year was 1954. The school was Hillcrest Elementary in Fort Wayne, Ind. The teacher was Miss Craighead, who looked exactly like her name.

"She put the word in big letters on an easel, put her hands around it and then asked all of us to come up one by one and put our hands around it as we spoke the word. I can remember vividly putting my hands around 'look' and knowing suddenly I could read. It was wonderful!"

Teachers and family members figure prominently in the reading autobiographies: mothers who read to their children at bedtime, teachers who cried for joy when the lightning struck. Indeed, all the experts say people who were read to as children are better readers as adults.

For Sally McNelis, Baltimore County's 1994 Teacher of the Year and now humanities chairman at Eastern Technical High School in Essex, the adult hero was a retired librarian who allowed Sally to borrow from her private collection -- and gave her a quiet place to read.

McNelis' first word was "sun." Early on, she said, she discussed with her mother the difference between "sun" and its homonym, "son." She said, "From that point on, I figured the English language was going to be a puzzle all my life."

What is it that makes learning to read an epiphany for so many?

"When you think about it," said Blair, "learning to read is the defining moment in a person's education. When we go to school, we're filled with the expectation that we will learn to read, and when we do, it's a memorable experience. And reading is really the single measure of academic success. It's not the same as math and science. To succeed in the other disciplines, you have to know how to read."

There also is the matter of power. "When people know they can read, they know they have power over their own lives," said Blair.

Suzanne Wojewodzki, an employee of the Blue Iris flower shop in Catonsville, put it less elegantly but just as effectively: "If you can read, you can figure out stuff for yourself. You know what I mean?"

Frostburg State, UM begin joint engineering program

In an unusual example of inter-university cooperation, Frostburg State University and the University of Maryland College Park have launched a joint engineering program that will allow Frostburg students to earn College Park degrees without leaving their campus.

Lower-level courses in mechanical and electrical engineering will be taught at Frostburg by College Park professors, and upper-level teaching will be delivered to Frostburg by interactive video.

Pub Date: 12/18/96

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