By Michael “Raúl” Brown, M.S., Ph.D., Senior Lecturer in Spanish, UNC Department of Romance Studies
Once upon a time, in a not-too-far-away land, there lived a little boy. In his house, there were no books, so when he went to Head Start (pre-school), and all the kids read, he knew that something was missing. It was as if he suddenly remembered that he had lost something, only he had never owned a book, let alone been able to read. Embarrassed, brave, and clever, when it came his turn to read, he held up the book so all could see as he turned the pages and told a story. No one said anything about his words not matching the words on the page, but, still, he knew something was missing and he very much wanted to find it.
When the little boy got to first grade, he thought, “Now, I’ll learn to read!” Sadly, his teacher only saw the poor on the outside rather than the brave and the clever on the inside. She would not help him to find what had never been his but still felt like it was missing. Rather than teach him to read words on the pages of books, she threw ugly words that wounded his heart.
Before I tell you the rest of the story, I want to tell you a secret that not every boy and girl know. As a matter-of-fact, sometimes people get really, really old before they discover it: for every wicked witch and for every mean monster that hurt us, both on the inside and out, there’s a fairy godmother, someone who is kind, waiting to cross our paths with goodness. We have to keep marching, however, even when we are sad, hurt, or tired because, if we give up, we may never get to their part in our story, and we may never get to play our part in someone else’s. In the second grade, still unable to read, this little boy met not one, but two of these special people, and they helped him to find what he knew was missing but had never been his. Mrs. Alexander, who gave the biggest of big hugs, sent the little boy to Mrs. Patty, whose face was like sunshine. The little boy was ashamed to have to learn with younger kids and hated having to explain where he was going and why, but this teacher was helping him to find what he was missing—she taught him to read!
Mrs. Patty was so very nice, but the little boy still didn’t like having to go to another classroom, so one day he went to Mrs. Alexander. “Can I read for the class?” he asked. Surprised, Mrs. Alexander said that he could, but asked what he would read. The little boy looked around and saw the advanced reading book, picked it up, and with a smile almost as big as his eyes, he proclaimed, “THIS!” He could see the doubt and worry on his teacher’s face, but she didn’t have time to talk him out of it! With a voice much bigger than his little body, he read strongly, he read clearly, and he read joyfully. He had found what had never been his, what was missing, what no one would ever be able to take from him—he could read! The whole ride home on the school bus that day, he kept thinking, “As long as I have a book, I can escape!”
As you’ve probably guessed, I know this little boy’s story so well because I lived it. I was right about what I thought on the bus ride back to the trailer park where I lived—reading would play a powerful part in my life. To say that my childhood was difficult would be putting it lightly, but books have helped me to escape in many ways. Once, a teacher opened her closet full of books and handed me a paper grocery bag with the instructions to “take what I needed.” She knew what books could do and how I would need them to survive. Sometimes, I would open up C.S. Lewis and escape to Narnia or explore King Arthur’s court, and other times I’d commiserate with characters like Cassie Logan over our pain or Zora Neale Hurston would challenge me to be strong and faithful through the storm. Starting in sixth grade, in the summer, when allowed, I’d walk for miles, passing by dobermans that terrified me, to go work in the school library—that magic room with thousands of doorways to other places and people.
Books helped me to escape in another way, too. I come from a family that not only didn’t have books but whose reading ability and educational level in general were at a bare minimum, but books have taken me to other places. They took me to being the first in my family to graduate from high school, to college, to graduate school, and now to the University of North Carolina, where I’m a specialist in Latin American literature. (Yes, I learned another language because I felt a need to understand their stories!) Even though I don’t teach young children any more, I still get to pass along what that little boy learned. Many students come to my class thinking that they hate reading, but then I take take them on an adventure, page after page after page. When our time together ends, most want to know what book they should buy so they can go on their next adventure, keep learning to see life through someone else’s eyes, and be changed by the words of those stories that were once lost to them but could now be found.