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American abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass famously said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
I have not found that to be the case.
As a child, I was a bit of a celebrity.
When I was three, I found my way to the local elementary school and asked to be let in. They told me I was too young, but, after telephoning my mother, allowed me to sit in on their kindergarten class for the day.
I found it a bit slow.
You see, by the age of three, I had already taught myself to read.
I am not sure how I accomplished it.
We had a lot of books lying around, but the only one I can remember now is Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever.
By the time I had started school for real, it was hard to keep my ability a secret.
One time, on the way to school, I was stopped by a couple of the rough-and-tumble Cusimano boys.
One of them had a paper route and rode a special bicycle with a big metal container on the front full of newspapers.
I recall them pulling one out and asking me to read the headline aloud, and then, amazed, the rest of the article.
Early in my school career, I was asked to come to the principal’s office – not because of any misbehaviour, but to demonstrate my gift.
Mr. Malcolm took a book, seemingly at random, from his office bookshelf and asked me to open it to any page and begin reading.
A few days later, I found myself moving from Grade 1 to Grade 2, right in the middle of the school year.
Looking back at my report cards, I find it hard not to laugh.
My Grade 1 teacher called me bright and inquisitive.
But by the end of the year, my Grade 2 teacher had lamented that I was immature and that some of my stories were “silly.” I was seven at the time.
Classroom reading exercises in the 1970s involved ubiquitous boxes of SRA cards.
This ingenious system made learning a game, allowing individual students to progress through each of the dozen or so colour-coded levels independently.
We’d read a story contained on a large card and then answer questions to test our comprehension of what we had just read.
Of course, because I already knew how to read, this stuff was easy and fun for me.
We also had the Scholastic book club, through which we could order books at school and have them delivered to our classrooms each month.
I was very glad to discover that this is still going strong.
I also loved when our teachers would read books aloud to us.
I can sometimes still hear the voice of Mrs. West in my head whenever I read one of my favourites, Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.
I continued to excel in school and, unbeknownst to me then, my parents rejected the school’s advice to skip me another year after Grade 6.
They were concerned about my social development, and it turns out they were right.
By Grade 8, I was tired of being called a “brain” and helping everyone else with their homework.
I wanted to be accepted, but I didn’t want to stand out.
My report card that year warned that I appeared to be holding myself back.
I got a further comeuppance in high school, where it quickly became apparent that math and science were not my strong suits.
My childhood ambitions of becoming a surgeon or a biologist started to fade.
But so what? I could do anything, couldn’t I? And there’s the rub.
If anything, I think being able to read from such an early age spoiled me.
Having the world open up through books might seem like a wonderful thing, and when I was a child, it was.
But as I grew up, and continued to feel like the world was forever opening up to me, at least through books, I became more and more restless.
I have been part of the work force now for more than 30 years, starting with my first summer job selling magazine subscriptions door-to-door.
But I’ve never held a job longer than four years, and any grand idea of building a career, never mind a vocation, has long since evaporated.
From time to time I blame the new economy, or the Internet, or the rise of unpaid internships.
But the truth I cannot avoid is that I think I’ve always just been an intellectual nomad.
I have been spoiled by reading.
My head has been filled from toddlerhood onward with the magic of worlds created by words.
To this day, I cling to the illusion that if I am sufficiently interested in a subject, I can make a career there.
But the truth is that I am still the daydreamer I was as a child.
Back then, they thought I was just bored with the standard curriculum.
Perhaps it was simply that the real world could never compete with the world I found in books.
Perhaps a better quotation about reading would be George Bernard Shaw’s, about the slightly ridiculous “hero” of Cervantes’s novel: “Reading made Don Quixote a gentleman, but believing what he read made him mad.”
Oh, and the Cusimano boys? All doctors and lawyers. One is even, if you can believe it, a brain surgeon.
James McNally lives in Toronto.
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