I am five, in my classroom at school, and I have been trying to read for two or three months. It seems apparent that pretty much everyone else in the class is progressing more satisfactorily than I am. They are advancing to books that aren’t even in the series I am still struggling with. The girls especially, I can tell from their chatter, are enjoying their reading. They actually understand the texts that they read, whereas all I can do is lurch from word to word, essentially unaware of any meaningful narrative behind this tortuous mystery.
We had started with the Janet and John series of books, and I had coped after a fashion. These books were designed to be taught using the ‘look-and-say’ method where, on first encountering the text, the teacher simply tells the child what the word says, so that they will henceforth always recognise that word when it reappears in the future … for it will reappear, immediately, like a thing demented, over the next few pages. And when you have that experience, you will forever know that word. The earliest stages of this enterprise had not been too bad, and I was now competent in a basic vocabulary of perhaps sixty or seventy words, comprising essentials such as
We sit at our desks for these reading lessons – and there I am, almost certainly stuck on a hard word that I do not know. My fellow pupils are actually turning pages as they read their books … but not I. It is the same sentence for minute after minute, as I stare at it, hoping that its meaning will burst through the typography and mystically activate my brain into understanding what it says.
One by one, the teacher summons us to her desk at the front of the class, where we are put through our paces as she opens our books to both pages that we have already mastered, and those we have not yet even glimpsed, and she listens as we read them aloud to her. The best I can do, when things go very well is, as it were, read out a list of words, the words of the sentence revealed above the card the teacher places on the page to deliberately obscure the text lower down. I seem to recall that a second card would often as not be placed over the text higher up, compelling the reader’s eye to attend to only the words being read and spoken at that very moment. Does she even block out the text to the right, and move her bit of card in time for our arriving at the next word?
Oh dear … here is a hard word I do not know.
‘Try to say it,’ she tells me. How? How do you even make the attempt? The context of the sentence, which probably I am not aware of, does not help me. Now, she covers up the letters of the word to reveal only its syllables, one at a time. She tells me to ‘sound the letters’ … she shouldn’t be doing this, because she is supposed to be teaching by the look-and-say method, and not by using this phonic approach. I recognise the end of the word, because it is the same as the word ‘down’, which I already know, but the final letter is missing. Well, that’s something. I struggle with the first part, though. I have not seen it before, and I cannot relate it to any words that I already know. I think she helps me, and tells me this syllable is ‘wind’. She presses me to say the letters aloud… I do my best, and I pronounce the word ‘window’, but rhyme it with the made-up word ‘wind-how’. I do not know the difference between ‘how’ and ‘doe’, nor that in this word, the ‘dow’ bit is pronounced ‘doe’. The teacher is exasperated. Goodness, she has been trying so patiently, but now she has about had it with this silly boy who gives every appearance of playing up. She raises her voice, and behind me I can hear the scraping of chairs as the rest of the class looks up from their reading to stare at me. I have been humiliated again, and I did not want that. I tried so hard to read that word – she has by now told me how to pronounce ‘window’ – and I feel utterly baffled that the word ‘down’ was of no use to me, a traitor complicit in my humiliation. I do not think she meant to be unkind, but she was, and the way she handled my inability to read that word was a disgrace. I viewed her with a suspicion that veered into contempt for the remaining months that she was to be my teacher.
That is why, ever after, whenever I read anything, that teacher is always right beside me, ready to catch me out, ready to call upon the rest of the world to take a good look at my shame, and that is the larger part of why I would for the rest of my life feel a disturbing awkwardness attend every act of reading. It was forever to be something dangerous that could bite me quite unexpectedly, like a rabid dog that looks quite friendly at first. I view with a sort of suspicion every book that I do not yet know.
The little house that I came to fifteen years later, upon getting married, the little house that my wife’s grandfather had arranged to have built in 1925, was named by him Vind-Auga, the Icelandic for window. We had a new enamel plaque bearing that name fixed to the new garden gate in 2009, the year that we had new paths put down in the garden so that my dear wife could get outside in her wheelchair. The little plaque is still there, and every time I see it, I am reminded of that fateful day I could not read the word window.