Michiana Chronicles: Learning to read
My sister Linda and I are heading out today to visit my grandson in Minneapolis. Vern will be two in December and this will be Linda’s first chance to spend substantial time with him, that, after a brief visit in June. I’m driving down to Grant County this morning to pick her up and then we’ll fly from Indianapolis. Vern is named after our dad.
Linda was diagnosed with lung cancer last spring. My big sister had never ever before been vulnerable in my eyes, in the eyes of her baby brother.
While she was at home in May recovering from a successful operation to remove the cancerous part of the lung, her husband died. John and Linda were high school sweethearts, class of 1964, Fairmount High School.
She was enthused when I suggested today’s trip the day of the service for John three months ago in the red brick Point Isabel Methodist church where Linda and John were married 54 years ago. That’s the church I attended every Sunday with my family growing up until my mom gave my 16-year-old self permission not to. It was a dreamy return, to the same mysterious stained-glass windows, the turret-shaped light fixtures hanging by a chain link thread from the ceiling, and the hardwood maple attendance board, that now read “14” instead of “65.”
Like it was all waiting for me.
Four men in the uniforms of the volunteer fire department John served for 50 years sat in the pew in front of me while John’s best friend, his son-in-law and his son paid tribute to John’s service to the community he never left. This place, his son said, not heaven, this place is where he should always be.
Linda is seven years older than I am, and I’m thinking today that Vern will remind her of me. She took care of me a lot when I was little and I got a kick out of telling her grandson back in May that his grandma made my life better in one particular way, a big way.
“Here’s something you don’t know about your grandma,” I said to Jace Riggs, a high school senior thinking that day about where he wants to go to college. “She taught me to read when I was four.”
Jace was driving Linda’s Ford SUV very carefully up the ten flat miles from Normal through Sims Township to the Big Dipper hamburger and ice cream drive-in in Converse. In the back seat Linda acted like she wasn’t listening.
“I had two years of reading under my belt when I started first grade,” I said to Jace.
“We didn’t have kindergarten there at the Green Township grades one through eight school in Pt. Isabel, where your grandma later taught third. I don’t think the parents of the other kids read a whole lot, and in some cases probably couldn’t read at all. I remember a name or two of the kids who struggled, embarrassed, stammered and stuttered, called upon to stand up and read aloud in front of everybody when they couldn’t. That struggle for them with school never ended. None of their sisters had taught them to read when they were four. We always had the newspaper and lots of magazines at our house, and books, and I remember the smell and the infinity of knowing things in the library where I soon had my own card in Swayzee. My mom and dad made that so. My mom and dad made that so, but it was your grandma who taught me to read.
“So, thanks to your grandma, I was entering first grade with quite an advantage, two years of some kind of basic reading.”
“Thanks to your grandma I could read already. That made the teacher like me, I suppose, for being an example to the other kids when reading time came. I got a lot of positive reinforcement, I’m sure, and when people told me I was smart, I ate that up.”
Jace parked the car. I got a tenderloin. Mustard and onion. Not as good as the ones John made.
Unlike the other kids in my class, I thought from a young age that college was a place where I belonged. Later, I figured out that I wasn’t really smarter than my friends, the other working class kids I hung out with in high school, kids who weren’t going to college. I just thought that I belonged there and they just thought they did not. From that, we acted accordingly.
I owe my sister big time for teaching me to read when I was four. I’m convinced that it led to the very best things for me.
Linda taught third grade for 42 years, that’s hundreds of kids, firm but fair, with empathy and love for everyone of them. I got the best of that.
This is going to be a great trip. We’re going to a Twins game tomorrow. Linda will enjoy reading to Vern. Vern will enjoy it, too.