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The Worst Cowgirl in the Wild West of Words
Reading is easy, and reading is fun - for other kids, but not for you.
For you, words double, fracture, and run right off the page before you have time to read them. You go to ocular therapy twice a week to learn how to corral words onto the page and spend hours in a dark room staring at a beam of light. It doesn’t seem to work. You’ve been in the lowest reading group since you were old enough to notice that teachers were splitting kids into groups. You’ve accepted that words are wild animals and your inability to tame them will keep you in the “fun group” or the “go at your own pace group.” You protect your little ego with the flimsy explanations adults have given you over the years about the difference between reading speed and reading aptitude. You tell yourself that the ocularly typical kids are no better than you are and that you’re special for knowing the word “ocular” at all.
This year, third grade, the rift between the “advanced group” and “fun group” becomes painfully obvious. The bookshelf for advanced kids is filled with hardback books two inches thick, with inside covers describing complex characters, and teeming with all those words you can never seem to catch. The fun section, on the other hand, has books made of cardboard so toddlers can teethe on them. Your teacher gives the class five minutes to pick a book from their respective sections to read for homework. Kids shout, holler, and fight over books. You are not one of these kids.
You stick to the back lacking the enthusiasm to even pick a book at random. When the five minutes are almost over and most of the other students have taken their seats, a book catches your eye: The Secret Garden, it’s glossy spine sticking out slightly on the top shelf -- the advanced shelf. You reach up and grab it; in the moment you aren’t fully sure why, but once you sit at your desk, it somehow feels right. At home, you will not be rushed or distracted. You will take your time to pin every word to the page, read them, and prove that you have the aptitude of an advanced reader.
When Mom notices The Secret Garden in your backpack after school, it feels even more right. Your smile grows wider and wider as she tells what a good choice you have made and that she’s glad you’re challenging yourself. After that shower of positivity, you rush to show the book to Dad. While Mom’s opinion matters to you greatly on many subjects, Dad is the reigning authority on reading. Nothing rivals his love for reading except maybe your love for him, and you know he wants you to love reading just as much as he does. While your sight has been improving, your love for reading has been lagging. You blame it on the boring and simplistic books filled with weakling words that are easily caught. Only runt-of-the-litter words are offered to you: The Worst Cowgirl in the Wild West of Words. You aim to change your title when you triumphantly drop The Secret Garden in Dad’s lap. After explaining your choice to him, he is overjoyed. He too is glad you are taking the challenge. He asks you to analyze the book for meaning and discuss it with him as you read through it. Your parents were far more apathetic about the juvenile books you read in the past, and their current excitement confirms that you made the right choice.
Mom and Dad, as an almost nightly ritual, sit on the bed and read together. They often invite you to read with them but you are usually disruptive to their quiet reading environment when your simplistic books lose your interest. That is all going to change tonight. The Secret Garden in hand, you march into their bedroom and nestle yourself in between your parents, ready to love reading, ready to show them that you love reading.
You flip to the creamy first page of the book, and, having skipped the introduction so that it looks like you’ve already made progress, you look like a real reader. The spine of the book delicately placed on your knees, you feel a shock of excitement run up your spine. As you look down at chapter one, the words seem smaller than you’ve ever seen before. You decide it won’t be a problem and bring the book closer to your face. Just as the words begin to go into focus, they vanish. Your heart sinks as the words double and dance right off the page. You look up from your book at your parents; Dad is already immersed in his book, but Mom looks back at you and smiles. That smile motivates you, and you return to the pages. You focus hard and the words return. You begin to read, but as you go, it gets harder. Tilting your head to one side seems to make the words stay in their pens. Then when that isn’t enough you close one eye, but even that one canted eye can’t make the words take orders. All of this work has only brought you to page three. The meager progress seems impossible. It’s humiliating. You don’t love reading. You can’t. How could you like this?
You don’t want to tell them though. You start turning the page every once in awhile without reading. Your dad jokes that you’re reading very quickly and asks if you’re skimming. You freeze and say yes but that you’re going to go back to actually reading now. You stay on that one page for a while. You then look to the side and begin to keep track of how fast your parents turn their pages and devise a system. When Dad turns the page, wait fifteen seconds and then turn yours. If Mom turns her page, within those seconds start the counting over and turn your page fifteen seconds later. You are proud of this system; it took a great deal of trial and error for no one to question your pace. Now everything seems normal; everything is normal. Everything is perfect here between Mom and Dad, in the warmth of their bed, reading.
My imitation of reading over time evolved into actual reading, but for years the act of reading was still a kind of imitation. My ocular issues robbed me of discovering my own reasons to read. so I found reasons outside myself. I still felt my parents wanted me to read and that I should read, but the actual act of reading gave me no joy. Reading felt pointless, and not reading felt shameful, which left me in a Catch 22. My drive to read was entirely external which left me empty. I didn’t find internal motivation until I was much older and wasn’t expecting to.
You have some free time after school, a rarity considering your sophomore year of high school is in full swing. All you have left for homework is reading a couple chapters of 1984, and you know your teacher won’t check annotations, so it will take no time at all. With the prospect of finally binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the back of your mind, you crack the matte spine, hold the pulpy pages in hand, and begin to read. You have a rather ugly copy of the book with extremely brittle covers and pages poorly pasted together. The words line up for you, row by row, crystal clear, and perfectly tame. There is no novelty in this, clarity in language has become the norm, so the book lays like a dead thing in your lap.
Yet, with each page you read to your amazement, both you and the book come to life. You finish the pages you were assigned and continue on; with each passing word you are enveloped, entranced, and invigorated. You find sanctuary from the stress of everyday life as Winston and Julia find sanctuary in their apartment above the antique store. As you read, you do it without thinking about anyone else. You are reading for yourself, and for the first time, finally, you know what reading is.